Monday, May 11, 2009

Bolivia

March
15 - Copacabana
15 - La Paz
18 - Challapata
19 - Uyuni
25 - Vila Alota
26 - Parc entrance

Bolivian Route



After a looong break, here we are back at blogging. It's been so long since we've posted an update, I don't even remember the last thing I said...

Crossing into Bolivia was interesting, as the border looked a lot like the ones we've seen back in Central America, and it didn't take long to be given a lecture because we parked AFTER the raised barrier. The policeman even mumbled something about us being uncivilized monkeys, which I thought was pretty ironic...After Andy (being American and all) paid $135 for his visa, and as we were getting ready to leave, we get intercepted by another policeman who wants to write down our names and bike plates numbers in a notebook. Sure, no problem... Except he then asks for the equivalent of $30 each for having done that. So we tell him half-jokingly to take our names off the list :-) The conversation got a little heated and we ended up just leaving his office without paying and ignoring his loud complaining behind us.

Our day was to be a short one as it was getting late and we stopped in the first town, called Copacabana. No, that's not the famous Brazilian beach, it's just a touristic town on the shore of lake Titicaca. To our surprise, as we were entering the town, Fer (the Argentinian rider we had met already a few times) rolls by on his Transalp. After a few zealous hugs we go to his hotel which had parking and was quite cheap.


Caroline finds a huge, gentle dog

So, what do we eat tonight? Bolivian? Naaaah, Mexican, of course!


Unfortunately, the resident dog must be fed the same kind of food, as his farts were absolutely unbearable, and he was firmly stuck to his spot, on one of our table's benches. Trying to move him manually got us a nice show of teeth as a warning. So here, Fer is pleading with the owner to kick the fella out. Done deal, except, every time someone entered the restaurant, the bastard would return to his favourite table!

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Next day we saw this parade of indigenous women, with their very typical hats.


Group picture! We took a lot of these....

More official annoyances, this time at the town's exit, where we're asked for an obligatory contribution. For what? Because we visited the town...Ha? After more mindless discussions, we left, just like before, under the loud protests of the cops.


The drive from the border to La Paz is very beautiful, and the lake is stunning, much nicer than on the Peru side, with beautiful mountains and clear views. The lake really looked like a painting, a bit surreal.

More group pictures

The drive includes a lake section that needs to be crossed with a very rudimentary ferry.

...and moved by an equally rudimentary motor. I'm not complaining, at least we didn't have to row. You have to have a positive attitude in places like these...

Especially when getting off a ferry made for cars only requires significant effort for bikers (there were planks only where the cars tires were, so we had to go in reverse in a perfect straight line)


Our drive was nice and the scenery was beautiful, only tarnished by our first unfriendly encounter with the locals, in the form of being refused gasoline at a gas station, Why? Cause they don't sell to foreigners...it was kind of disturbing.

We were soon at the edge of the big pot that hosted the nation's capital, La Paz. It is the highest capital in the world, at 3600m.
Very large city, and nice panoramic view.

Equally impressive is the Mount Illamani (6400m) towering over the capital

We somehow find our way to the centre, where we were soon told to that we had to leave as the president was going to arrive. We didn't wait...There is a lot of social movement in the country and we didn't feel like being in the middle of something ugly.

Some of the few interesting buildings are located in this plaza.

Presidential guard. Aren't they handsome!

Time to look for a place to sleep. Soon to be a nightmare, as many of the streets are one-way.


We find a street with many backpackers hostels, but the one-lane street is being used by 2-lane traffic, so I got on the sidewalk, and leaned the bike against a pole...barely.

Lots of deals, but nowhere to park, so we look further away and find a regular hotel that lets us park in its hallway. In the background, you can see a person through the cracked door. It was a british dude on crack...no, really, he was! Bolivia is a very cheap place if you want to be high on whatever your heart wishes, and this fella took advantage of it (and the cheap accomodation). I wish I had a video of him, he was quite the character....

Sometimes local businessmen lack imagination...

Municipal by-laws are duly followed ("garbage disposal strictly prohibited")

We went looking for the LaPaz nightlife, and after a few hours of wandering and finding the total sum of fuck all, we end up in a hole, much worse than it seems in the picture below, pretty colors and all...It reminded me of some places back in Romania, with shady people and dark corners. But beer was cheap and we took advantage of this!
South American Idol.....
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South American Idol.....


Then, on the way back to the hotel, we stumble on the La Paz Hard Rock Cafe! It was a lot more expensive (to pay for its good looks), but we didn't need a lot more to get completely smashed....

Fer does the bottle dance

Radu joins in...

The free drinks shot from a distance are not receiving a great seal of approval...
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After such a night, next day had to be a calm one, and we strolled the artisan alleys. Lots of cool stuff, and I don't usually like these kinds of places

We entered a music store, and I saw this amazing looking mini guitar (actually called a charango), made from the carcass of an armadillo, complete with hair. Exquisite craftsmanship, and I almost bought it, but after talking among ourselves, I realized it wasn't a good idea. First, it might not have passed customs (for whatever fucked-up reasons they have), and also, the owner - and guitar maker for that matter- said that it may not like a more humid environment than Bolivia and will eventually start to twist.

Caroline is holding it like it's still alive :-)
But I didn't give up and I wanted to see how this charango sounds like. So I told him to convince me to buy it by playing something so cool I won't be able to resist. So he did (see video below). 5 minutes later I was sitting outside his shop trying to figure out how on earth I'm going to fit my new charango on my already overloaded bike....
video


Other cool stuff on the "magik" alley, all sorts of vodoo paraphernalia, including these dried Llama phoetuses. Yes, you read that right....kilos of them.
Our friend Andy bought one and last I heard, managed to get it past the US customs, that's balls!


"can I have a pet? Zero maintenance required..."

These didn't look hand-made, but I liked the picture.

Leppard skins, the most expensive one was $2500

Some kind of constrictor snake skins

She was just standing on the street frozen in time...Until the bus came, She woke up and hopped on.

Telephone hub. If something breaks, I bet they just add another cable.

We missed the opportunity to experience this made-for-tourists bolivian invention.


We filled up on bargain Llama clothing, including this fancy cashmere hat that Caro so proudly adorns. I think she looks like a Hearshey candy.



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Next day we nervously started a day-long trip on something called " the most dangerous road in the world" It has been like that for a long time, it's a dirt mountain two-way road that barely fits a bus. Many have perished along the years, not least due to the suicidal driving style of drivers around here. Many victims aren't even recovered from the bottom, too much trouble I suppose.
When you see your bus driver doing the cross 3 times before he starts, you know you're on the wrong bus...


Not long after we started we met a whole bunch of people, all hyped up about this famous road. An englishmen, former motorcycle dealer, and a frenchmen, actual commercial helicopter pilot (great job- works half a year in northern Canada, makes enough money to travel the other half)
Soon the wide asfalt turned to narrow dirt. Gorgeous road! However, not a single car, except for the 4x4s carrying the bicycles of all the suicidal tourists. I called them that, because they are the ones now in the top statistics, they were just racing downhill full speed and I can see how sometimes the less experienced misses the corner...10 second drop.

Anyways, what happened is, the government finally gave in, and found the money to build a second parallel road which is paved and wide. Countless portions are suspended on mini-bridges as the mountain wall is too steep to cut a road in it. Very impressive achievement.
What's not impressive is how LaPaz tourist zone continues to be filled with banners and ads for experiencing "the most blablabla..."



The next three pictures of me (same moment, taken by 3 different people) are some of my favourite ones in this trip



Can you tell how scared I am? I was shitting in my pants!

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A video of the road leading to that spot (stabilized in "post-production", the original was so shaky, it was unusable)


Caro posing. Or just sitting.

Definitely posing!

Falling mist, I have never seen anything like it.


These guys just decided to cut up some trees, which fell on the road, blocking any traffic. They were (for once) very effective in cutting it up.


Great views on the way back on the "good" road.

This fella looked like hell, Caro gives him a scratch and a hotdog, piece of heaven.

I suppose anything is good if it takes you home.

Spent the evening with our new friends (this is the cool helicopter dude)

Weeee, another milestone (disregard the fact that she's taking this picture at speed....in Bolivia)

We left uninspiring La Paz behind and headed south towards the real challenge of this trip, the one that's supposed to make or break us, according to many 2-wheel travelers. Southern Bolivia, unique, remote and reaaaaal hard to get to.

We stopped in the last town (challapata) before pavement disappeared, we knew we needed all next day to reach the salt flats of Uyuni, 200kms away.



After convincing this "hotel" owner to let us stay we discovered the most rudimentary accommodation of this trip so far. But it was $10. For all three of us.

She pretty much describes the general attitude of Bolivians towards the white man. The country has the highest concentration of indigenous population of all Latin America and it seems the memory of what has been done to them is still well preserved.
Their stance is understandable if you're sitting on a couch watching Discovery Channel in Toronto, but living it sucks....

This dog was officially crowned "the weirdest dog of the trip". I will have nightmares with him. Is he frowning?!?

***************************************************
Next day, hell started immediately, and within 10 minutes Caro had a cracked fairing (the first one so far!)
One hour later we had done 5 kms. It was so crazy we didn't even think of taking pictures. They are building a road to replace the joke they call "off-road", beside. It should be called just "Off". And the rain made things even more interesting.


Things improved slightly, or we just got more used to it, after a while.

Nope, back to crap road. Caro doesn't miss the chance to snap a pic.

And I return the favour later on.

And again :-)
This one was so slippery I had trouble walking on it.
This was also the end of the road, it lead to a river, and no sign that a bridge ever existed. I asked a local, how do you cross? the answer came, you wait that the river level drops...No freakin way!!
Another pointed to something downriver, so we went that way.

No, it's not a bridge, it's a cement plate, beats round rocks!
We crossed it without problems, but I think even this is not practicable when the river is high after lots of rain.

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Our turn to cross the river. Probably the only video with both of us...



The only colors in Bolivia

video
Here's a video that illustrates the power difference between a 90's BMW and 2008 KLR650 (mine). This was naturally the subject of many smart ass comments on my expense....


We started to be more comfortable riding on this bad road, and made it more than half-way to a little town where we had something to eat.

A bunch of kids gathered around the bikes and were mesmerized by the GPS. I let them play with it, I don't think they have or will do it again. I remember in communist Romania, when foreigners were visiting we were amazed by the simplest of things.



The evening was approaching, and so was a rain storm. We didn't want to get caught in this cold and in the middle of nowhere

I bet a small car can't make it through there. Caro got stuck as well.


A helping hand...

Immediately after I noticed some fluid dripping from under the bike. I touched it and my heart sank, coolant!
Took the side panels off and located the leak, a rock had smashed trough the flimsy radiator protector grill.
We tried to fix it with some special metallic bondo but it didn't last and I just had to keep refilling it with water and stopping every now and then to let the temperature needle come back to normal.

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Not long before dawn, we finally arrived in Uyuni, exhausted. The next day we had planned to ride the salt flats, but it wasn't possible until the bike was fixed, and a little break was in order, too.
I took a cab who from mechanic to mechanic, finally bounced to a welder who fixed it for $10. When I asked him if he pressure tested it, he said "what?" I guess I'll just have to trust him, what choice do I have?


We used the rest of the day to visit the local train cemetery, very authentic, and free!

And we had a picnic of champions on top of a train!

After such a big meal, we thoroughly enjoyed the rare heat from the sun (it was still cold in the shadows), and got a Bolivian tan.




I'm sooo funny...


Another picture that says a lot about this country. In the distance, beautiful scenery, up close, garbage everywhere...


That stuff at the bottom of the rail tracks? gazillions of plastic bottles.


That evening we went to this dubious spot, obviously made for tourists.

So, what's the big challenge? If you drink every cocktail the bar makes, it's free. If you fail to finish, you pay up. Nice scam.


FAIL! Yes, that's a mobile toilet where they puke...Mommy would be proud.


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Here's another contestant, full video. The crazy thing is, the walls were filled with people that had managed to win. The best was a woman with an incredible time of 1 minute and change.


Yes, it's cheesy but I couldn't resist.


Neither could she. The penis comes complete with white smears!!

We befriended with a japanese chick in the bar. She claimed she was a real modern Geisha!


And after a while it got down to body shots


The film got cut after a while and I regained partial lucidity in the morning, when I noticed the incredible feat of throwing up UNDER the helmet, without actually touching it.
I did touch, however, every other corner of the room, and the bathroom looked like the aftermath of a massive teenager party

We assembled every ounce of energy, and while my head was still spinning, I declared myself fit to ride. We also took our japanese friend from last night's bar activities.



The entrance to the Salar was like stepping on a different planet, this truly was worth any effort to see.

We have a lot of pictures here, it was very difficult to pic the best ones. It was easy to take pictures, too, no worrying of getting off the "road".


Experiencing the weird feeling of talking with another biker without looking in front of me for 30 seconds...


Or touching the handlebars at all.

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Here's a video (1:30), from Caroline's view.



Our destination for the day was a rock island in the middle of the salar, and after about 80 kms of GPS navigation (there are no reference points at all), we arrived.

And after a late lunch, we did what every other traveler does on the salar. Experimenting with perspective, when there's no points of reference.
Caro sits on her giant bike


Leans against it


Our Japanese friend promptly took her clothes off, and we snapped some cool artsy shots.

Yes, darling, we're still taking pictures, why don't you turn around...?
We took some even riskier shots, but we can't make them public, they have to be requested.


Instead here some regular pics, for family and stuff.

Cool as hell!

One of those chance photos, this dog just showed up in the camera's field of vision.

Salt, everywhere. And it eats metal.

We wanted to stay and continue taking pictures, but night was falling and we had another 100km to go back to our hotel.

Incredible view, with the sunset, and a looming storm in the distance.



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Another video, ride during sunset, from my perspective.


Those are water puddles in this salt desert. Makes for some stunning photography.
In the distance you can see a bus, it uses the salar to get across to another town.

Different camera, same spot.

***
How do you finish such a perfect day?
 By crashing...
Except this was not dumping-on-mud, haha kinda of crash.


About 10km before Uyuni I hit a lone square stone, the bike did a perfect 360 forward (front wheel hit the rock, front of the bike lifted, and when the rear hit the bike started to rotate in the air). It then landed on its wheels and fell on the side. The only crash marks are on the windscreen which scraped the road when it flew in the air. I know it's hard to believe, to this day I also have trouble believing it.
I on the other hand didn't have suspension built-in and fell on my ass. which hurt like hell.

Luck continue to present itself, and the next vehicle was a pick-up truck driven by the Bolivian representative for relations with the European Union. He spoke english and drove me to the hospital. Then came back later and picked up the bike as well. Great guy, thank you!

Plastic also cracked due to the windscreen scraping the road.


Big-ass dent in the wheel. If this was a regular aluminum wheel it would have cracked.

The pain in coxis was getting unbearable, so he gave me some sedatives, and sent me to the local xray-machine, which I think was a museum during the day. I'm not exaggerating, it looked like it was built at the beginning of the century, when they still made functional tools look nice, with ornaments. The problem was that there was only an operator of the machine, but no doctor to interpret the image. I couldn't believe it. They mumbled something about cracked pelvis bone, which to me meant end of trip....

The jacket lifted, here's the result.


I get food delivered to my hotel bed. Every muscle hurt...

***
I decided to take a few days of rest to see how my injury evolved, and Andy, who had two weeks to make it to Buenos Aires decided to hit the road. We said our farewells, hoping to see the guy again.
In the mean time, the town had all sorts of marches, it was close to national day, the day they lost access to the Pacific Ocean in a battle with Chile, "War of the pacific" 1879-1883. They also lost large pieces of land to Argentina and Brazil in similar circumstances. In total, about half of the original Bolivian territory belongs to the neighbouring countries


The kids were cute, it was obvious they couldn't care less about this marching thing.

My recovery was going well and after only 2 days I managed to get off the bed and check on my bike.

Took the bike to a local mechanic to fix the wheel.

Some pigs were having fun in the mud.

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Then, they got really upset, trying to get back in the house! Sooo funny...
Here's the video.


Would you trust this guy to fix anything at all on your bike? Look at the mess!
However, with no apparent tools, just big pieces of metal, he miraculously straightened the wheel without cracking it.

More time-killing on various patios. Here Caro fixed this dog's hairdo...He looks like the french singer Mathieu Chedid

This hyper dog was so excited to be talked to, he went on a frenzy and started chewing at the table!

***

After hesitations and pondering, I decided to take my X-ray and go see a specialist in a different city. I didn't want to risk it, if I had a cracked something, it could get worse.
The train ride was "only" 6 hours for about 300kms. It was slow and arrival time was unpredictable because the state of the railway was no better than the state of the roads. It was late "only" 5 hours...only in Bolivia can this happen.

We all slept in the train station on the floor as for some reason there's no benches.
To my relief the doctor said that I was fine, he gave me some more medication and sent me on my merry way.


On the way back I was rewarded with some beautiful dawn scenery.

Quite dramatic!

***
So the next day, even though I was supposed to rest more, we decided to continue riding south.
It was easy dirt riding, and I thought hmmm, that's not too bad. We stopped in a small village where half the people had a convenience store, but they were all closed and you had to knock at their door to get what you wanted.

Street decoration were quite rustic too, as for example this bizarre pole made with stones held together with a metal cage.

A deserted plaza. A well maintained church. And a something I have no idea what it is, on the left.


Not much happening, felt like an abandoned town, if it was for the occasional head popping from a cracked door to watch us. A little creeped out we returned to our room, were we had electricity for one our, because it's diesel generated for the whole town, and very expensive.


Llama crossing. No, really, Llamas are crossing :-)


Second day started bad and it got progressively worse.


And it looked so arid, but beautiful in many ways.

This was a difficult water crossing, it took us forever to get out of there.

Fuck it, leave it there, I'm sick of it!

video
A short video of the endeavour....


Another mini salar

Another fall on sand



Deeper and deeper sand. This was getting unbearable, so frustrating, and the bikes felt too big and heavy for these conditions..


Why not trying it on rocks. That's Radu, btw.


I wanted to have pictures of this ordeal, so here's some perspective shots of Caroline, with the Toyotas behind filled with tourists. They had no problems with the sand...

video
And a video of that.....


The metal oxides in the mountains give those rainbow colours.


Some interesting rock formations, they look man-made, but it's all nature's hand.

This is a popular one, it's on all the brochures.

More crappy roads, it took the life out of us.


Here I almost lost it. No, wait, I did lose it, I started screaming like a madman. Or like a member of the developed world who wants the same treatments in the third world. So I tried to calm down internally, and got out of there eventually. The bike was deeply embedded in the sand and the motor being carburated had no power whatsoever at this altitude.

The day's frustration reached such a point that when the park ranger asked for the $5 park entrance fee, I blew up again, all I could think of was on what exactly is that money spent on, 'cause it sure wasn't the f*cking roads.


But this little angel with the ears decorated brought a smile to my face.


Just hanging around the place they liked to call hotel.

Whose owner didn't like Llamas drinking the water from the barrel

We had no food on us so we begged to eat with the organized tours, and watched a movie in bed. The beer didn't need to be put in a fridge, it was 6 degrees Celsius in the room.


In the morning the tourists entertain the locals with their shiny gadgets.

While I continue to beg, this time for gasoline.


Let's start the day on a positive note, shall we? Not a km away, Caro dumps it. So that's that kind of day we're gonna have...

How are you supposed to ride on this shit. It was depressing seeing that it was like this as far as the eye could see.

Not far we crossed a frozen stream. So the temp dipped below zero during the night.

The customs are well hidden, but I didn't want to miss this great picture, never had the exit stamp done at over 5000m, it must be the highest customs office in the world! The bikes were barely running.


My GPS said there's some kind of attractions nearby, so we took the small detour, and we landed on field of sulfur puddles, with gasses blowing off everywhere.

You could never do that in Canada!

video
And a video of it .....


"I've had enough of Bolivia"


The beautiful lake we reached had some interesting colour formations at the edge, I didn't know what it was.

...Until we reached a thermal pool , the water was hot, and those colors were some kind of algae that thrived in this environment.


Caroline cooks some lunch

..beside the thermal pool. Just 15 minutes before, this was filled with tourists, but they're all on a fixed schedule, and left it all to us.


Private thermal bath, skinny-dipping at 4500m...


GPS readout of what looks like flatland. That's as high as the highest peak in the US!




This area was one of the most beautiful in the last 2 days.


Laguna Verde. It was so beautiful, and there was no other soul...


We were close to the border at this point and the view was even more breathtaking.


Less breathtaking was the customs office (the first one at 5000m dealt with the bike papers, this one with us).

We knew from other traveler's stories that Chile was a lot more civilized than Bolivia. We were so looking forward to that!

PAVEMENT!!!