January 18, 2015

South America: Bolivia

May 29, 2014

My smashed knee was starting to improve and I was too stubborn to seek out any medical facilities and deal with that, so I just sucked it up and tried to forget about it. This whole experience made me realize how powerful the mind can be. No matter how much pain I was feeling or when uncontrollably shivering from the cold, when you're stuck on the back of a bike in the middle of no where, no comforts around you, and too stubborn to give up, you can really talk yourself out feeling anything except gratitude and acceptance. Especially when around some of the most poor - yet kindest and generous people I have ever met, you feel like a total brat complaining about anything. We had it good, no matter how challenging it was at times. However, that's not to say no tears were shed...

The pass into Bolivia finally opened up so we stocked up on water, gas and food supplies to prepare for the remote and high elevation of the Altiplano, averaging over 13,000 feet. While waiting at the border station in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile we met two 60-something year old cyclists from Holland who were riding bicycles through the Laguna Route to Uyuni. I was blown away by these peoples' strength and fitness. To ride bicycles in such place while carrying all your camping supplies, plus food and water for such a long and physically demanding journey was insane to me. Three days on a motorcycle that does all the work for you made me feel like a baby. 

The one-man staffed immigration adobe building we entered Bolivia was at over 16,000 feet. Luckily it was dry and sunny, but temperatures were freezing being the beginning of winter. We rode past snow-covered volcanos surrounded by arsenic and other poison filled frozen lakes with pink flamingos swimming around. It was a surreal landscape that felt like something out of science fiction. We came to some hot springs and reluctantly shed the tons of layers of clothes and riding gear, but the warm soak with no one around was well worth it. We had to make it to Laguna Colorado before sundown and had a long and slow ride to go, so we had to keep our stops to the minimum. In this area of Bolivia no one lives, but there are 4x4 SUVs that take tourists from San Pedro to Uyuni. They leave hundreds of tracks in the dirt and sand going in all kinds of directions and there are no road signs, although sometimes rocks in the sand to let you know you were on some sort of road. We never really knew for certain if we were headed in the right direction which definitely was a little stressful. We had paper maps, but they weren't always accurate and no GPS to tell us where we were in the world. The road usually felt like a wash-board and at one point going over a rough patch of frozen sand I broke my thumb just from holding onto James' jacket from being jerked around so much. After a long day of what felt like bull riding, we thought it was a miracle we made it to Laguna Colorado just at sunset and the 4x4 tour guides let us stay in the adobe shelters for the tourist. We cooked pasta with ketchup by the trash cans while the other tourist ate something inside the warm kitchen that smelt delicious. Not sure if it was the layers of dirt on our faces, but the other tourists seemed to avoid us. 

The next day was more rough, slow riding through volcanos and frozen lagunas with flamingos. We made it to a little village with only a few kilometers of gas left in the tank and the one gas station was out of gas. Luckily the same 4x4 tour we bunked with the night before was also there, so we purchased some gas from their storage tanks they carry with them. The next morning we rode from the town of Uyuni to the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world. We met two Italians who had rented motorcycles in Peru, so we headed into it with them. It took hours just to get to the middle and Isla Incahuasi where we would climb to the top. Surrounded by 1,000 year old cactuses and seeing a landscape I had dreamed about for years was surreal and brought me to tears. It's indescribable the expanse of that place and it's truly magical. We stayed till sunset then pointed the bike towards the tiny flickering lights of the town and headed in for the night.

The next morning we left Uyuni and headed north. On the way out we repaired a tube and met a 21 year old guy who drives a truck carrying salt from Uyuni to La Paz who was repairing his truck with his mom and dad. Another full day of riding to the gross mining town of Oruru. It was filled with so much dust it was hard to breathe, but we had a nice dinner of meat, rice, lettuce, fries and a coke, a nice upgrade from the usual pasta with ketchup or bread with mayo. When we left Oruru it took us 4 attempts to find gas. The first station was out of gas, the second wouldn't sell to us because we had foreign plates, the third had a massive line of cars, but the fourth station finally had gas. There were many road blocks and protests along the PanAmerican highway to La Paz. We usually were waved through and if not were able to go around it thanks to being on a dirt bike that can easily squeeze through sidewalks and blockades. The last road block was in a canyon with a massive line of cars, trucks and busses stuck and unable to move due to the amount of traffic and natural constraints of the canyon walls surrounding. We were able to hop off the main road and take a dirt road up the canyon cliff sides, but the protestors saw us coming and ran across to cut us off and prevent us from passing. We tried with what crappy language skills we had to convince them to let us through, but they insisted we could not pass. They were holding big sticks and seemed pretty pissed, so we turned around but quickly spotted a dirt farm road further off the main highway. We didn't know where it went, but we figured we'd take it until we could get far enough around the protest. Another great reason to be on a dirt bike - you can make your own roads when non exist. 

After 200 miles of highway we rode through the massive, but interesting and beautiful city of La Paz and down the mountains into the Amazon to the amazing village of Coroico. We found a nice hostel for under $15US a night ran by a sweet old man who sunbathed all day. Coroico was paradise. There was fruit growing everywhere, huge flowers covered with even bigger butterflies, beautiful birds and parrots everywhere, delicious food that wasn't just fried chicken and french fries (the typical street food of Bolivia), but rather spicy steaks and juice from fruit I had never tasted before. We decided to stay another day and explore a local waterfall we were told about. It was so nice to ride in a t-shirt in the warm sunshine through banana and citrus groves, coca fields and coca leaves drying out in the road. We swam and ate chocolate covered frozen bananas. 

The next day we sadly left paradise and headed back towards La Paz taking the North Yungus road Ruta de la Muerte, or the Bolivia Death Road. This road use to be extremely dangerous, but a few years ago a new road was built, so there isn't really any traffic on it making the road significantly less dangerous, but filled with bicycle tourists if you don't get there early enough. Thankfully we just started to see them as we were headed out. 

We headed towards Lake Titicaca, Cusco bound.

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