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Old 01-15-2008, 12:49 PM   #1
RockyRoads OP
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Joined: Jun 2005
Location: Aptos, California
Oddometer: 250
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.


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.


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:

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

RockyRoads screwed with this post 01-26-2008 at 02:08 PM
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