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Old 01-15-2008, 01:49 PM   #1
RockyRoads OP
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Dirtbikes & Death Roads, 2200 Miles in Bolivia

The morning sun was revealing spectacular cloudscapes over the Andes mountains, and I could hardly contain my excitement.



We had been flying all night and were almost to La Paz, the capital of Bolivia and the starting point for our 12-day motorcycle adventure. As the plane descended through the clouds, we could see the snow-covered mountains:



We had been planning this trip for months—selecting the country, fine-tuning the itinerary, and arranging childcare at home for our two young children. Initially, I had wanted to ride in Peru and see Machu Picchu, but our research led us to a neighboring country, Bolivia, where Maurice of Moto-Andina offered to guide us around Bolivia, from the mountains and high altiplano to the jungle, riding DR650’s on mostly dirt roads. We had explained to Maurice that we wanted a “very challenging” ride, with long days of riding, difficult terrain, and a route that would cover both the high altiplano and the jungles of Bolivia. Maurice was extremely accommodating, answering our many detailed questions in full, and promising us an incredible journey.

At almost 12,000 feet above sea level, La Paz is the highest capital in the world and is nicknamed “the city that touches the sky”. It has a unique location, inside of a large natural bowl carved out of the high altiplano. The airport is located on the flat altiplano above the city, at about 13,300 feet high. Ben and I had read plenty of stories about the debilitating effects of altitude sickness (nausea, headaches, difficulty breathing, insomnia) and had started taking preventative medicine the day before; whether it was the medicine, our genes, that “magic pill” that Maurice gave us at the airport, or our consumption of coca tea (or a combination of all four), neither Ben nor I suffered from altitude sickness during our trip.

The route from the airport had us dropping down from the edge of the crater, into the city below. View of La Paz on our way from the airport:



La Paz is structured so that the city center is in the bottom of the bowl, with the sides covered by the poorer neighborhoods (unlike most cities where the wealthy are generally situated up high with a nice view). Because of the altitude, the higher areas in La Paz can be much colder and do not have the plant life of the lower areas.

Our hotel in Bolivia (the El Rey Palace Hotel) was spacious, very comfortable, and centrally located.
View from our hotel:



After a quick breakfast and short nap at the hotel, we met Maurice for a stroll through the city and a relaxing lunch at an excellent restaurant, La Comedie.

Ben and I on the way to lunch:



We were also joined by Marc, one of the four Belgians who would be riding with us on this trip. After lunch, Ben and I decided to visit a few museums and to wander through the market areas.

The streets were pretty crowded with cars.

Ben:



There are also numerous minibuses, each with a “caller” who continually yells out the location and price from the side of the minibus. If you want to ride, you give a wave and hop aboard.



We visited the Museo Tiwanaku, which has some interesting artifacts from the excavations at Tiwanaku, as well as few mummies. Here I am at the entrance:



The museum was quite small and only had a handful of visitors. While in the museum, we were approached by two girls who were interviewing people for a school project. Since Ben and I have been studying Spanish at our local community college for a year and a half, we were able to converse with the girls, and answer their questions (where were we from, how long were we staying in La Paz, etc.). At the end, one of the girls asked me if I would be her “madrina” (sponsor) because she wanted to come to the United States to study. I explained that I was already the madrina for a girl in Bolivia, Maribel (although she did not have plans to travel to the U.S.), and that we would be visiting Maribel the next day.

We continued walking through the streets of La Paz, in search of another museum that Maurice had recommended. On our way, we came across a peaceful and orderly protest in the streets:





Bolivia currently has a lot of social and political turmoil. Economically, Bolivia is the poorest country in South America, although it has an abundance of natural resources. The population of Bolivia consists of approximately 65% indigenous people, and the current president (Evo Morales) is the first indigenous president. There has been, and still is, much oppression of the indigenous people. While I don’t understand all of the complexities of the social and political history, there appears to be a great divide between some of the wealthier non-indigenous people who live in the eastern low-lying cities, and the indigenous people who live in poorer communities along the high altiplano and who are demanding greater rights and benefits. During our time in Bolivia, there were violent protests in the low-lying city of Sucre, with several deaths, causing Maurice to change our route to bypass that area.

More views of La Paz:

We had to walk up the hills a bit:



After a long trek, we finally found the museum--but it was closed! We took a picture anyway to show that we at least had made it there:



The shoeshine boys were everywhere, wearing ski-masks to hide their faces:



Ben in front of the Iglesias de San Francisco, an old church that incorporates some of the indigenous religious symbols into the facade:



A house that shows its history in the stonework at the base:



That evening, we met the rest of the riders in our group and had a delicious dinner together. Here we are, from left to right: Kathy, Ben, Gérald, William, Marc, Olivier and Maurice.




DAY 1: LA PAZ TO JANKO MARCA AND SAJAMA

This morning we traveled to Maurice’s home in the Zona Sud (Southern Zone) of La Paz, where the bikes were waiting. The color of the hills surrounding La Paz were rich and varied, and there was a lot of construction:



Many of the buildings in La Paz and other areas of Bolivia are made of brick, and there are often piles of bricks and building materials scattered around; at times, it was difficult to discern whether the buildings were being built or being torn down.

Maurice and Rene (on top) loading the chase truck:



The gang: Top Row: Rene (our fast and funny chase truck driver), David (our wonderfully upbeat #2 guide), Hugo (our exceptional mechanic), Marc, me, Ben, Gérald. Bottom Row: William, Maurice (our knowledgeable and extremely gracious #1 guide) and Olivier.



We then headed up, up, and up, out of La Paz, through the city of El Alto and turned south. The road out of La Paz was pretty twisty and was a fun way to start the day, and the views were amazing. With the clouds hovering at the top of the altiplano ridge, La Paz did indeed appear to touch the sky.





Our ultimate destination today was the base of Volcán Sajama, the highest mountain in Bolivia (21,463 feet high). After our first gas stop, however, we would split into two groups. Ben and I would be riding to the small altiplano village of Janko Marca to meet Maribel and her family; Maurice and Rene would accompany us in the chase truck, and the rest of the group would go directly to Sajama. I had started sponsoring Maribel in 2006, and we had exchanged many letters. Before our trip, I had arranged to be at Maribel’s village at 11:30 a.m. today, although we were running a bit late.

The town where we parted ways:



A note about Bolivian roads: while there are some paved 2-lane roads connecting the few large cities together, the vast majority of roads are dirt, and street signs are practically nonexistent. The roads often branch off in various directions, and it is very easy to get lost. Even with written directions, navigation can be quite challenging. Also, there are many rivers that do not have any bridges. We had to cross one of those rivers on the way to Maribel’s village. Unfortunately, the rainy season started in early November this year, instead of late December, and when we arrived at the river crossing, it was veeeerrrrrrry wide. The water was only several feet deep, however, and the local people had a flat-bottomed boat that several men would pull across the river. On the other side we could see the boat waiting for a herd of sheep to finish crossing a field and board the boat. We waited, and waited. The sheep were not in a hurry. Ben and I were scoping out what looked like a possible path for us to ride across on our bikes. Ben decided to test things out, but he soon became embedded in a stretch of gooey sucking mud that tried to swallow his rear tire.

Rene lent a hand in the rescue.



After we had successfully extracted Ben’s bike from the muck, a local man came out of one of the few houses by the side of the river and told us that the boat that was slowly crossing the river with the sheep would be too small for the bikes and chase truck and that we needed to go further down the river to one of the bigger boats. So off we went.

One of the bigger boats:



After we loaded the vehicles onto a boat, backing the bikes carefully down onto narrow planks, we relaxed a bit.

Here I am with Maurice and Rene. And yes, the boatmen pulled us all the way across that wide river!



Some shots of the boatmen pulling us along the bank, to get around the sand/mud bars in the middle of the river:





We finally arrived at Maribel’s village, 3 hours late. Maurice said that the concept of time was a bit more fluid in Bolivia than in the United States, but I was still really concerned about Maribel’s family thinking that I wasn’t going to show up. Ben and I arrived at what we thought was the village, and we stopped in an open area to discuss whether this was the right place or not. Then we heard a band start playing and saw a crowd of people coming toward us. This was indeed the village! And it seemed like the entire population was there to greet us. Maribel’s mother and family members blessed us with multiple sprinkles of paper confetti on our heads.

The band:



Me, with Maribel and her mother.



The crowd around us:



Then Maribel’s family dressed us in gifts of traditional clothing—with a warm sweater and hat for Ben, and a beautiful purple skirt, sweater and hat (not yet on my head) for me:




They also gave us small glasses of brown beer to drink and instructed us on the local custom of first pouring a small amount on the ground as an offering of thanks. I only took a couple of small sips—my head was already swirling from the excitement around me, and I wanted my mind to be stay as clear as possible. Then the band started playing again, and we were pulled outside the gazebo to dance around the plaza.


(Does this skirt make my . . . ?)

Ben was quite the ladies’ man:



My heavy motorcycle boots were not the best dancing shoes, and as we started our second loop around the large plaza, I was wondering how long my stamina would last. But Maribel and I were joking with one another, and there was plenty of laughter to carry me through.





Afterwards, Maribel’s teacher provided us with a grand tour of the school. Earlier this year, in preparation for our visit, we had asked the school if there was anything special that they needed as a gift. Here is the entrance to the school, with the new gate that we provided; Maribel’s teacher is on my right.



The school was very impressive. The buildings were well-maintained, and the students had planted some trees (a rarity in the altiplano area) in the courtyard. We visited Maribel’s classroom and admired all of the wonderful schoolwork that was displayed on the walls.



The school recently built a small comideria (cafeteria) in which the mothers and fathers volunteer each school day to cook hot lunches for the students. Here are some of the items in the comideria storeroom; I thought the lamb’s head was very interesting:



The school is also in the process of building a greenhouse to grow tomatoes, carrots and many other types of vegetables and fruits for the children. There was a lot of community support, and pride, in the school and the achievements of the students. There was even an upper-level school for the older children and adults, which served a number of the surrounding villages. We could see that the monthly sponsorship funds (connected to many of the children) were being put to good use and were really making a difference in people’s lives here. After the school tour, we walked to Maribel’s house. Here I am with Maribel’s parents inside of their modest home:



We were then treated to a meal of quinoa soup and lamb. Quinoa is a nutritious grain that is grown on the altiplano; Maribel had explained to me previously in one of her letters that quinoa soup was her favorite food. During the meal, Maribel’s mother ran into the house and urgently requested a knife, explaining that one of their cows had eaten something that had caused its stomach to swell up, requiring emergency action in order to save the cow’s life. She ran back a few minutes later, frantically asking for another knife because the first one was too dull. There didn’t appear to be any other knives available, so Maurice handed over his multipurpose tool. Maribel’s mother was able to cut the cow’s stomach open, clean it out, and then sew the cow back together. The village leaders, as well as the leaders of the local sponsorship program, were crowded into Maribel’s small one-room house. While we were eating, we were introduced to each one. We learned that the village leaders are selected each year and are responsible for running the village as well as resolving disputes and doling out punishment to community members who break the rules.

After eating, we thanked everyone profusely for such an incredible welcome and heartwarming hospitality, and we explained that we still had many more miles to travel before we reached Sajama. During the last round of goodbyes and hugs and thank-yous, I finally got the customary greeting down—a handshake, then a kiss on the right cheek, then another handshake. (I had been doing a handshake and then trying to do a kiss on each cheek.)

We continued onward to Sajama. Night was fast approaching, and the roads had many potholes and surprise washouts that made night riding more challenging. There wasn’t much time to take photos, but Ben took this one of a pretty valley that we rode through.



After nightfall, our pace slowed down due to the road conditions. The moon had not risen, and the blackness was immense all around us. At one point, there was a huge gap in the road from a washout that was not noticeable until the last moment—I registered the gap in my brain, increased the accelerator, held my breath to see if my tires would clear the gap, gave up a prayer of thanks when both wheels were on the other side, and stopped for a moment to let my heart settle back to its normal rhythm.

We finally reached the asphalt of the two-lane highway. Maurice explained that we had 35 miles of highway before our turnoff to Sajama. The chill of the night air was intense, and I put on another jersey under my jacket and inserted some chemical hand-warmers into my gloves. Above 12,000 feet (and especially at highway speeds), the cold of the altiplano has a way of blasting its way through clothing. After only a few miles, I was frozen. My night vision is also not the best, and my imagination wants to play tricks on me. And every once in a while, a big truck coming the other way would almost blow me off the road. After a few more miles, I have to admit that I was just plain miserable. I kept ticking off the miles in my head, thinking, “Okay, only 27 more miles to go; okay, only 24 more miles to go.” To pass the time, I tried to list the ten things that I enjoy doing the most in life. The first that came to mind was holding my husband’s hand (after 16 years together, I still get a kick out of slipping my hand into his), the second and third were snuggling with my two beautiful children (especially when they are a bit sleepy), and the fourth was riding crusty trails on dirt bikes with my girlfriend Chris every week. There were other things, but those four kept me feeling warm and cozy for quite a few more miles.

We finally reached our turnoff. I was shivering uncontrollably, so I had Ben put a chemical body warmer on my upper back—ahhhhhh, I should have done that 25 miles ago! The rest of the ride to Sajama was on a relatively straight dirt road with some sand in places. We arrived at the Sajama hostel around 10 p.m. My odometer read 232 miles for the day. The rest of the group had just gone to bed. The hostel is run by a wonderful couple, Marcelo and Isabel Nina. The chase truck had difficulty fitting into the courtyard, so Marcelo got out his sledgehammer and knocked quite a few large rocks off of the stone-wall entrance (talk about accommodating!). Isabel had dinner on the stove for us, and we were soon sitting down to more quinoa soup and a spaghetti dish. We hurried to bed before the generator was turned off.

Photo of our hostel at sunset, taken by Gérald earlier in the day:



[DAYS 2-12 TO BE CONTINUED BELOW]
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Old 01-15-2008, 02:17 PM   #2
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Hey guys this looks like a great trip! You gotta love being greeted with a band!

Have fun.

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Old 01-15-2008, 02:27 PM   #3
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DAY 2: SAJAMA TO LLICA

The next morning was crisp and clear, and we were able to appreciate the beauty of our surroundings.

Sajama, an extinct volcano:




(Notice the rocks holding down the edges of the tin roof, a common sight in the altiplano.)

The twin peaks across from Sajama:





Close-up:





Our group, bidding farewell to Sajama:




During the morning, we entered the Parque National del Sajama, Chullpas, where we saw our first flamingoes:





We also visited some ancient structures, recently restored. They are funeral rooms built in “adobe”, from earth and straw, and made in the colonial period (after 1592).





The roads were pretty rocky (although not as bad as some later in the trip). Here is Hugo with William, changing one of the three flat tires our group would get today:




Whenever we stopped in one of the towns, a small crowd would gather around us, curious about where we were going:



Along the way, we saw many herds of domesticated llamas, which are highly valued animals; their wool is warm, their dung provides much-needed fuel for fires (there is no wood because trees don’t usually grow at such high altitudes), and the meat is purportedly tasty (I missed our one dinner of llama steaks, as I’ll explain later). Here is a typical village with llamas:



We stopped for a few minutes in a small town next to the Salar de Coipasa (also known as the “Baby Solar”), a large salt flat that covers over 850 square miles and is approximately 35 miles across. (Tomorrow we would be riding on the grand Salar de Uyuni, which covers over 6000 square miles.) Some buildings in the village:





We talked briefly with this woman and her two children. She was kind enough to let us take her picture. (We always asked before photographing someone; many people said “no”.)





Ben and I riding on the Salar de Coipasa:





Our friend, Gérald:





The salt looks very much like snow. However, there is wonderful traction.


Me:



Ben took a close-up of the terrain:




Since we were over 12,000 in altitude, the surrounding hills did not have a lot of vegetation. Due to the early rainy season, portions of the Salar had water that reflected the sky and surrounding mountains. The landscape was just stunning.




The early rain also meant that the edges of the Salar were quite muddy. Unfortunately, our chase truck got stuck.






We tried unsuccessfully to free it. Maurice finally led the bikes away, as Rene was digging a hole to bury the spare tire and pull the truck out using the front wench. We continued through a series of jeep trails, over and around hills, with rocks and sand and some water. Fun, fun!

A town we passed by at sunset:





Our destination was a town across a portion of the next Salar; however, Maurice didn’t want to cross the big Salar at night without the truck. On the edge of the big Salar was the town of Llica. Maurice went into town to see if we could stay there tonight (many towns in the altiplano do not have hotels/hostels); he returned saying that the only accommodations were a few “very basic” rooms. He explained that he did not usually bring groups to stay overnight in Llica because there wasn’t a good place to sleep; this was just an emergency situation because of the chase truck.

As we rode into town, I could hear a band playing with numerous brass instruments and a booming drum. While planning our trip, I had read an article by a traveler in Bolivia who had been kept up until 1:00 in the morning by a band playing outside his hotel window (that band had been practicing for an upcoming festival). The sound of the band got louder and louder as we rode through the town; I had to laugh as we stopped right by the band, which was playing directly in front of where we were staying. I asked Maurice if he knew of any festivals occurring today or sometime soon; he said “no”, and jokingly said they were celebrating our arrival.

The band:





Yes, our room was very basic:






The room was so bad that it was funny. We took a peek at the sheets and found that they hadn’t been changed lately, and there was garbage under the beds. We were on the second floor facing the street, with the glass in one window missing; so we had the band’s music in full force in our room. The part that had both Ben and I really laughing, however, was “walking the plank” whenever we had to go to the bathroom (I won’t even talk about the condition of the bathroom). The bathroom was in another area of the building; we could reach it by either (a) going downstairs, crossing a courtyard, and then going up another set of stairs or (b) walking to the end of the rickety balcony outside our door and stepping out onto a plank that was balanced across a wooden post that stuck out of the wall, with the end of the plank resting on one of the stairs that came up from the floor below. Most of the time, we chose the plank, although we had to be careful and step so that the plank (which was not bolted down) didn’t fall off the wall and drop us 8 feet to the cement below. A bad photo of the plank (our camera lens didn’t open properly)—between the end of the wooden walkway and the edge of the plank is an 8 foot drop, with the stairs much further in the distance than they appear:





We had dinner at a small café around the corner—very good rotisserie chicken and rice. It had been a long day. Our expressions in this photo never fail to make me laugh:





The band had disbursed by the time we finished dinner, although one trombone player was still wandering around playing for at least an hour afterwards. We didn’t have our luggage because the chase truck didn’t make it into town that night. Ben and I bought toothbrushes and paste from a small store on the way back from dinner. We then settled in as best as we could, to listen to all of the night sounds of the town, including many dogs and a rooster that started crowing at 3:30 a.m.

DAY 3: LLICA TO VILLA MAR

Ben and I both woke up feeling very ill. Neither of us could keep any food down, and our journeys across the plank were far too many. We also had chills. Despite our protests that we didn’t need a doctor, Maurice brought us a local doctor, who took our blood pressure and prescribed some medicine. The doctor said that different countries naturally have different kinds of bacteria, and our bodies were probably reacting to a type of bacteria that was new to our systems.

I was determined to ride my bike, but by the time I got on my gear and carried my helmet down the street and around the corner to the bikes and the chase truck (which had arrived that morning), I had depleted every last bit of my energy. I reluctantly sagged into the passenger seat of the chase truck; it was not my finest moment.

Ben had more strength than I did, and he rode the first portion of the day before joining me in the truck.

Ben crossing the Salar de Uyuni:





We stopped for a short time at the Isla del Pescado, which is an “island” near the middle of the Salar, covered with large cactus.









We continued south across the rest of the Salar, then through sandy and rocky roads to a wonderful small hotel near the town of Villa Mar. We arrived at the hotel after dark, but here are two pictures of the landscape along the way.








The hotel was beautifully decorated in a sparse yet artistic style. There was a delicious dinner served, which Ben enjoyed; I had to pass because my stomach was still turning somersaults at the thought of food. Our bed was extremely comfortable, and we had our own bathroom with hot water. We both slept soundly.
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Old 01-15-2008, 03:07 PM   #4
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DAY 4: THE SUD LÍPEZ AREA (Borax Mines, Laguna Colorada, Geysers, and Laguna Verde)

I woke up feeling very well rested. I even managed to eat a small amount of breakfast. Today we were setting off to explore the amazing Sud Lípez area in the southern tip of Bolivia. On the way we stopped for a short break and I decided to take a rest by sitting on what I had been affectionately viewing as soft tufts of grass along the road. Down I sat, only to discover that those “soft tufts” are really a form of desert cactus. Up I sprang, pulling long spiny rods out of the back of my pants (ouch!). Here I am a few minutes later sitting on some rocks with some of my furry friends:





Our first destination today was the borax mines. From a distance, the borax mining area looked very similar to the salty salars we had crossed over the past two days.

Our road with the borax fields in the distant:





A closer view:





Maurice wanted to take us to see the warehouses and the miners’ residences. We stopped briefly at the entrance, where a tire sign read “Prohibido el Ingreso a Vehiculos” (Vehicles Prohibited from Entering).






Here we are in front of one of the warehouses and some of the miners’ quarters. During the winter, the temperatures here can be brutally cold.





As we continued onward, we had our first sighting of a herd of wild vicuñas.






Vicuñas are small members of the camel family that live only at elevations above 11,400 feet in the high Andes. They have traditionally been hunted for their soft and warm fur; however, they were declared endangered in 1974, when only about 6,000 animals were left.

After traveling for miles through pretty stark landscape, we were surprised to find this natural spring with green plants (and a herd of llamas) at the entrance to the Reserva Eduardo Avaroa.







A short distance later we reached the Laguna Colorada, which is a large lake with a reddish color from the algae that live in the water. The lake is the nesting ground for different kinds of flamingoes that migrate here and feed on the red algae (which turns the flamingoes pink). The guard at the reserve entrance asked us to keep our bikes away from the edge of the lake because the flamingoes were in their nesting period and shouldn’t be disturbed.













Laguna Colorada is approximately 14,000 feet in elevation. The surrounding landscape has nothing visually alive for miles and miles--just barren rock and dirt. (But there’s actually a road sign out here!)





We then headed up to the Sol de Mañana geyser, at an altitude of over 15,000 feet. The geyser sits inside a volcanic crater, with numerous pools of boiling mud and sulphur.









David prepared a nice picnic lunch for us, and we sat among the rocks near the geyser and enjoyed the beautiful day. Here are Rene, Hugo (partially hidden) and Gérald:





Maurice then led us further south toward the Chilean border. Along the way, we saw some more flamingoes:





One of the few buildings that we passed:





The roads then changed from rocky to fine deep sand (miles and miles of it), where you had to go really fast to stay up on top.



The surrounding landscape:




We passed by the Dali Rocks (supposedly they inspired Salvador Dali), which we could see from a distance:






View of the Volcán Licancabur, a dormant volcano that is about 19,250 feet high:



Finally, we arrived at the Laguna Verde, with waters that are a beautiful green due to the arsenic and other minerals in the water.



We arrived just as a herd of vicuñas were running by the edge of the lake:




Ben and I:



The wind was blowing ferociously, so the water was choppy:



We returned through the same deep-sand roads that we arrived on (they were even more fun the second time). We were constantly entertained by the beauty of the mountains, rock formations, sporadic greenery, and llama herds:



























David and I passing by a typical small village:



Close-up of one of the houses:



We finally arrived at the small town of Queteña, where we would stay the night. Here we are in the courtyard of our hostel:




The manager/owner of the hostel, with her daughter:



After a quick shower, I noticed that the daylight was fading, and I told Ben that I wanted to explore the town a bit. We went outside and walked around, saying hello to the few people that we saw. However, there weren’t many people outside (it was quite cold and windy), and there were no shops or cafes to visit, so we returned to the hostel after a short time.

Here I am on the main street:


A local rancher cooked a dinner of llama steaks for the group this evening. Unfortunately, my stomach was still very sensitive and rejected even the thought of meat, so I had to miss the experience of eating llama.



[DAYS 5 -- 12 TO BE CONTINUED BELOW]
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Old 01-15-2008, 03:07 PM   #5
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Beautiful adventure! Loved the plank Bummer that you didn't get a chance to ride the second salar, that looked like a hoot!
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Old 01-15-2008, 03:19 PM   #6
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Wow!! What a fantastic adventure!! Thanks for the in depth report and pics.. most fascinating..

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Old 01-15-2008, 03:44 PM   #7
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DAY 5: QUETEÑA TO TUPIZA

Today was a wonderful day of fast, rocky roads that wound their way over multiple mountain passes. In the morning, we left the national reserve area of Sud Lípez. At the entrance and exit of each national reserve, Maurice had to provide identification information (such as passport numbers and birth dates) for all of us.

Olivier and William in front of the national reserve checkpoint:


As we rode onward, I was amazed by the rock formations and vistas. The protruding rocks were enormous:





Ben and I had stopped to take the two photos above when we looked back to see Gérald’s bike on the ground. He had crested a blind rise, with speed that had not anticipated a right-hand curve and sharp drop-off to the left on the other side. Although Gérald was now standing upright and moving around, he was in obvious pain. His right shoulder was making crunching noises, and the line along the top of his shoulder had an unnatural lumpy slope to it, making his right shoulder lower than his left; his right foot was hurt too. He was very stoic, and in his usual good spirits, but he indicated that he thought that his injuries were such that his ride was over.

Gérald (in the red shirt) at the top of the blind rise, waiting to climb into the chase truck. (Hugo is on the left, and William on the right.)



Our goal at this point was to get Gérald to the nearest doctor. The next town was San Antonio, and we were hoping to find medical assistance there. We continued onward, with Gérald in the chase truck and David (our guide who usually rode in the chase truck) riding Gérald’s bike.

We continued our winding path through incredible scenery:











Unfortunately, there was no doctor in the small town of San Antonio:



We continued riding to the next town.

Here I am heading down the road (one of my favorite photos):



Since the bikes could go a lot faster than the chase truck, we occasionally would stop and wait.

David and William taking a break:



Here I am with the town of San Pablo in the background:



Maurice had arrived in San Pablo far ahead of us and had discovered that there was a small clinic with a medic (not a doctor). The medic examined Gérald’s injuries and concluded that Gérald had broken his collarbone and had perhaps separated some bones in his foot. Gérald accepted pain medication but refused the offer of an ambulance ride to the nearest large town (Tupiza, which was our destination for the evening). He wanted to continue riding in the chase truck, taking photos of the scenery and being with the rest of the group at stops.

We had a picnic lunch at the town square, in front of the large church:



Another view of the town:



A close-up of the church doors:


A side view of the church:



As we were leaving, I noticed that there was a soccer game being played in a large field at the edge of town:



Since the homes are made from mud and straw (things of the earth), they often blend in with the earth visually. Here are a few homes and a llama herd that we passed:



The rain clouds had been threatening off and on all day. During the afternoon, I had seen two bolts of lightning zip down from the sky--so long and brilliant that I had shouted “WOW” inside my helmet, grateful to have witnessed something so magnificent. We had to cross one final high mountain pass, and the dark clouds directly in front of us let us know that we were finally going to get wet.


After we started off again, I rounded a corner and found a rainbow directly in front of me, with the end stopping right on our road. What could be more perfect and true: the land of Bolivia, with all of its spectacular beauty, really IS the treasure at the end of the rainbow!




The rain then started pouring down. We started our climb up the large mountain, along a narrow dirt road with numerous switchbacks. As we climbed higher and higher, the rain turned to icy hail that stabbed our faces with painful jabs. The lightning flashes seemed very close, and the thunder boomed in my ears. I briefly wondered if anyone had even been struck by lightning while riding a motorcycle—and, if so, did they die. Finally, we crested the top and continued down the other side. It was hard for me to keep my eyes on the slippery road with all of the breathtaking views:






The hail eventually turned back into rain and then stopped completely. We took a short break to gather together and admire the view:

William, me, Maurice and Marc (notice the dark grey of my jacket from all of the rain):



Looking in the distance, I was excited to see the road we would be on soon:




A close-up:


Woo hoo! As we descended, we continued to enjoy the views of sculpted cliffs:



These are the canyons through which Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid rode, and they met their ultimate end not too far from here:







The canyon entrance to the town of Tupiza:



We were losing our daylight quickly, but we had to stop for one last photo of the gigantic and incredible shapes surrounding us:



Tupiza was our first “big” city since La Paz, filled with cars and buses, and lots of buildings and people—it was quite a culture shock after the last few days. Our hotel was quite plush, and we were served a superb dinner of cooked vegetables and beef steaks, which I (finally) was able to thoroughly enjoy! And we had a peaceful night’s sleep.
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Old 01-15-2008, 04:13 PM   #8
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DAY 6: TUPIZA TO POTOSÍ

We woke refreshed and ready for another great day.

Here are two photos of our lovely hotel:



Maurice had scheduled this day as a “vacation” day; we would ride to the mining town of Potosí this morning and then have the afternoon free to tour the mine or just relax.


Getting gas:


David, in the light pink helmet to the right in the above photo, would be our leader today. Gérald, who had seen a Tupiza doctor yesterday, was in severe pain this morning and had decided to return to La Paz today by airplane for surgery. Maurice, who is a pilot with a Bolivian airline, was staying in Tupiza this morning to make the necessary travel arrangements and to ensure that Gérald remained in good hands. I would miss Gerald’s sense of humor and kindness during the rest of the trip.

Maurice told us that the government was currently paving the road between Tupiza and Potosí and that we should watch out for road construction and unpaved sections. However, Maurice NEVER told us that less than an hour away was our own personal curving race course!

We started out on dirt roads (with David leading)—fast, twisty sections that were just plain fun. Then we hit the newly paved road, where the cement was so smooth and seamless that it was unreal. The paved road snaked around the mountains, up and over and around, for miles and miles. For me, the hour or so where we rode hard in a pack, like one fluid being through all of the curves, with an almost perfect rhythm, was so magical that I never wanted it to end.

The conditions could not have been better. Whoever was in charge of paving those roads was exceptionally gifted. I felt like a little kid who had discovered a big and wonderful secret.

We were having too much fun to stop during the twisties to take photos. Here I am (still smiling) at a brief stop on a new bridge:


As we got nearer to the city of Potosí, the road turned to asphalt, became more crowded and had some straight sections. For the last 25 miles into Potosí, the rain poured down, with icy hail that felt like needles piercing my face. Potosí sits at approximately 14,450 feet above sea level—the highest city in the World. The air was cold. But this time I did not delay in stuffing a chemical body warmer into the back neck of my jersey, along with hand warmers in my gloves. Ahhhh, much better.

A brief stop as we near Potosí:


We arrived in Potosí around 1:45 p.m. We checked into our hotel, Hostel Colonial, where we had a spacious room with good heat and hot water.
Our hotel:


View from our room:


We had an excellent lunch nearby with the group, and then Ben and I walked around a bit. Here is Ben in front of the Cathedral, which was a block from the hotel.


A close-up of the Cathedral:


When we first arrived in Potosí, we had stopped our bikes on a street where every sign was for a lawyer’s office (“abogado” or “abogada”). Since I am a lawyer (among other things), Ben wanted to take a photo of me on this street:


We then headed to the hotel for a short nap before our tour of the mines.

To the south of Potosí is a conical mountain called “Cerro Rico” that currently has hundreds of mines in it.


In the seventeenth century, Potosí was one of the wealthiest cities in the world due to the silver that was mined from the mountain. Many indigenous people and African slaves were forced to work in the mines under appalling conditions. It is estimated that 9,000,000 of them died. Today, miners extract tin, lead, and other minerals under conditions that are still pretty atrocious.

Maurice had arranged to have a guide, Johnny, come to our hotel and take whoever wanted to go on a tour of the mines. Ben and I were the only ones who chose to go. Our first stop was a miner’s store, where we bought gifts of crackers and coca leaves for the miners and their families. The miners spend over 8 hours in the mine without eating, and they chew coca leaves to ward off the hunger and fatigue. I also bought some lollipops to give to any children we would see. Johnny also showed us the 95% alcohol that the miners drink. We then received mining gear to wear—boots, pants, jacket, hat with light, and belt with a battery for the light. We then took a taxi to Cerro Rico and visited a few families who live on the mountain.

Here are some of the miners’ houses above the mine that we would be visiting. The entrance to the mine is that black hole with the pipes across it.


View of the miners’ housing across the mountain:


We handed out crackers to several families, and I gave the lollipops to quite a few children. Here are the children from one family:


Now I am all set to enter the mine:


The walls surrounding the mine entrance were stained with dried llama blood, from an annual ceremony for good luck.


The mine entrance:


The mine tunnel was fairly narrow, and the ceiling varied from very high to so low that you had to crouch to get through. Here are Johnny and I:


Johnny showed us a vein of asbestos that ran through the wall.


He explained that most miners die around the age of 45 from the poor air quality and other hardships imposed by the mines. His father was a miner for many years, but he finally quit and became a bus driver. Johnny was a miner for two years before his mother said, “That’s enough!” So five years ago, Johnny started a tour guide business. He created a small museum inside one of the mines, with photos, clothing, figurines, and other items. Here I am looking at some museum objects in the mine:


Deep inside the mine, we visited “El Tio”, the deity of the mine, who is believed to have the power to take or preserve the life of a miner. Johnny gave an offering of coca leaves:


Ben and I with El Tio:


We did not see any miners working today because it was Sunday, the miners’ day of rest. The darkness of the mine, and the narrow tunnels, made me feel very relieved to walk out into the fresh air once again. Both of my grandfathers were coal miners in the Appalachian mountains in Kentucky (where I was born); visiting the mines in Potosí has inspired me to reconnect with that part of my family’s history, and I will be traveling back to Kentucky to visit the mining areas there (and many of my relatives) some time next month.

For dinner tonight, I was craving . . . a hamburger. Yes, I hate to admit it because I don’t eat too many hamburgers at home, and I really enjoy trying different foods when we are traveling. My stomach was still a bit tender from being ill, and I had spent the last seven days eating various types of Bolivian food; now I just wanted the comfort of a hamburger. Ben was craving pizza. He said he was envisioning a really good thin crust pizza. I told him, “This is Bolivia.” And he said, “Don’t destroy my dream.” So off we went in search of a hamburger and pizza.

There were a lot of people out walking, so we joined them, strolling along and looking for a place to eat. We finally came upon a restaurant sign that read: “Pizzeria Italia”.


We went up a flight of stairs to a large room where we were the only customers. I was thinking that things did not look promising. But then a nice woman appeared, and she gave us menus and made us feel welcome. The menu even had hamburgers! So I ordered a hamburger, and Ben ordered “Pizza Americana”, which had chorizo instead of pepperoni. While waiting, we could see the woman making the pizza dough by twirling it around above her hands. My hamburger came first—it was very similar to an American burger, and I was quite pleased. Then Ben’s pizza arrived—it was drop-dead delicious, with some of the best thin crust I have ever had—light and crispy. Ahhh, the surprises of Bolivia! We walked back to the hotel very content.
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Old 01-15-2008, 04:30 PM   #9
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DAY 7: POTOSÍ TO SORATA

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.

[DAYS 8-12 TO BE CONTINUED BELOW]
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Old 01-15-2008, 09:52 PM   #10
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Bill the Duck
Bummer that you didn't get a chance to ride the second salar, that looked like a hoot!
As I was speeding across the Salar de Uyuni in the chase truck, I thought briefly about all the pictures I had seen of that salar and how I had looked forward to riding across it on a bike. But I was feeling SO INCREDIBLY ILL that those thoughts melted away quickly. Riding across the smaller solar the previous day was an incredible experience for me. Ben said that the bigger salar was smoother, with no bumps or water; he said that it was the only time he has ever ridden a motorcycle with his eyes closed going 85 mph for about a minute. (He started with a few seconds, then the next time more, and gradually worked his way up to a minute. I am not going to comment on the insanity of his little experiment, but let me say that I am not recommending that anyone try and beat his one minute time.)
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Old 01-15-2008, 10:03 PM   #11
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Excellent report, can't wait for the rest.
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Old 01-15-2008, 11:48 PM   #12
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DAY 9: SANTA ROSA TO GUANAY

I was glad to leave Santa Rosa this morning. We had a very short day, only 71 miles, but we had two major river crossings to do. Maurice was not sure if the rivers were even passable.

A town that we rode through:



One insect we haven’t seen the entire trip: butterflies!


The first river had a very strong current, with lots of rocks under the water. Maurice decided against us riding across. After considering various options, he said that the crew would push the bikes across. The first bike, with Maurice, Rene, Hugo and David pushing (Ben offered to help, but Maurice said not to worry about it):









The chase vehicle carried the riders across. After Maurice and his crew had pushed the third bike across, this white pick-up truck appeared, and the driver agreed to let Maurice load the remaining bikes in the back of his truck to be carried across:




By the time all of the bikes were on the other side of the river, it was lunchtime. We had a picnic lunch and then rode onward.

We quickly reached the second river, which was much wider than the first:


There was a small village on the edge of the river, and our dilemma of how to get across provided some entertainment for quite a few of the children (and adults too).



After a while, this red pick-up came along and agreed to carry us and the bikes across the river:



(I was thinking that pick-up truck owners must be very popular people during the rainy season.)

While waiting for the bikes to be loaded, the heat was sweltering. I was reminiscing fondly about needing to wear my long johns in the cold altiplano air. I told Ben that I was imagining our next hotel with air conditioning. He said, “This is Bolivia.” And I said, “Hey, don’t ruin my dream!”

The rest of the ride passed fairly quickly. We were steadily descending in elevation, with continued wonderful scenery to enjoy:



Ben:



Another view (we are definitely not in the altiplano):



The town of Guanay was nestled in the green hills:



I loved this town! First we checked into our hotel:


Our room had its own bath, with hot water, and . . . drum roll please . . . there was a ceiling fan!!!! Even better than air conditioning (no loud machine noise). I felt like I had won the lottery!

As we pulled up to the hotel on our bikes, there was a little girl outside the hotel who stopped to watch. We chatted with her briefly—she was very smart; her name was Joanna, and she was 7 years old and in the third grade. When Ben and I came out of the hotel to take a stroll through town, Joanna was waiting for us with a children’s book that was written in English. It was a simple book about colors. Her grandmother had bought the book for her at the market for 2 Bolivianos ($.30), but they hadn’t been able to read many of the words. We knelt down with the book and went through the pages carefully, translating the English words into Spanish for her. Then she walked with us a bit until we reached her house.

Ben and I walked to the village plaza:



There, we found a tiny café with several outdoor tables. The owner was very welcoming. Ben and I enjoyed a drink and some small pastries together, watching the activities of the people around us. When it was time for us to pay, the owner said that the pastries were his gift, and he wouldn’t accept a tip for the drink either.

We had a good dinner of meat and rice in town. I got the opportunity to eat tripe for the first time—it was chewy like calamari but tasted “beefy”. From left to right: William, Marc, Hugo, Rene, David, Olivier, Ben and Maurice:


We had a solid night’s sleep . . . with the ceiling fan wafting air down on me all night long.



[DAYS 10-12 TO BE CONTINUED BELOW]

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Old 01-16-2008, 12:21 AM   #13
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What a wonderful adventure! Thanks so much for spending the time to take us along with you.
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Old 01-16-2008, 12:48 AM   #14
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That was just great,,your pics and commentary was excellent,,thankyou.
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Old 01-16-2008, 02:36 AM   #15
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Wonderful.
Very nice trip.
Fully described.
Aptly pictured.
More, please.
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