Despite slightly tainted from 6 years of absence, the memories of my first exposure to Bolivia’s carnage were still as potent as its locally distilled rum. I left the first time feeling like, well, like nothing really works all that well. We’d spent more time waiting for buses than actually riding them and once eventually on the move, the large majority of the trip would typically be spent either forcing the goats and chickens back under the seats or lending a hand to the overworked, underpaid drivers to botch a repair job to the overused vehicles as we clung to the side of a mountain dirt road. I’d been robbed in the streets of the countries capital, La Paz and, whilst boarding a bus to depart the city, I caught a glimpse of the Spanish headline on the newspapers sold by a 6 year old girl; ‘Sausages of dog meat sold in Bolivia’s capital!’ A nice change from the horse meat the British press are claiming I have been brought up on. Bolivia’s infrastructure; a nightmare for many tourists, a promised land for any dirt bike enthusiast. It was time to get dirty again.
Day 211, Saturday 8th December:
Peru to Bolivia, one of the last times we would have to deal with customs and piles of photocopying, the least exciting part of riding a motorcycle around the world. We continued on to Copacabana on Lake Titicaca. Finding an eatery amongst the hoards of Gore-tex wearing tourists proved easy and offered a cracking view over the Lake. That same lake and its large rivers which act as tributaries to the Amazon give landlocked Bolivia an excuse to maintain a navy to keep a cap on the movement of Cocaine. No joke.
Rule number one of Latin America; agree on one dish between the group and make no alterations. A cracking morning’s ride and spirits were high. We took our chances and threw caution to the wind. 4 different meals, 4 different drinks. “I’ll have mine without the egg please”, “Can I get rice with that?”. “You don’t need to write that down do you amigo?” We questioned the 14 year old waiter in an attempt to encourage him to get our request on paper. “No no senor.” He was on it. No he wasn’t. Brookbanks took the brunt of this one and spent the duration of the lunch stop twiddling his thumbs with a minor glimmer of hope that his dish would eventually show. It didn’t. “Welcome to Bolivia my young Padawan” I chuckled as I slapped him on his back, donned my helmet and headed south bound to La Paz.
La Paz Sits in a huge valley at 3650 meters. Yeah it’s cliched but with its snow peaks mountains in the background the views from the top of the valley are breathtaking.
We’d been on the road all day and pulled over to check out the view before dropping down in to the valley. An ideal spot to have a moment to collect my thoughts and appreciate the environment I was in but I was abruptly interrupted by a flock, no, a plague may be better suited of teenage school girls on a bus trip who had also stopped to take in the view. Each and every one of them insisted they sat on my bike and had me pose next to them for a photo. There was no escape. When I tried to sneak off there was uproar and I’d be pushed and pulled from all directions by the little critters until I was back in the default biker pose position ready for the next round of photos. Brookbanks and Team BMW were pissing themselves with laughter at my inability to escape. By photo 15 the face cramps had got too much and I signaled for the next in line to jump on to Big Dog’s pink (sorry Big Dog, purple) BMW and encouraged one of the rowdy ones at the back to pull Big Dog in to the frame whilst I sat back and enjoyed the best cigarette of the trip whilst watching Big Dog worm his way out of the carnage.
We’d arrived in La Paz on a Saturday night but the altitude seemed to be taking its toll on my wing-man and after a few beers and a bite to eat the night had a relaxed ending. In hindsight, this couldn’t have worked out any better. Jon and I had agreed to wake at the crack of dawn the following day to ride Bolivia’s ‘El Camino de la Muerte’ or ‘Road of Death’. At first light Brookbanks was rummaging about moaning about not being able to find his overpriced bottle of hair conditioner, remember the fancy one bought out of the shared budget? Well, bald men don’t hold grudges so I got up and got on with ensuring that every single piece of Forcefield body Armour was firmly strapped on in the perfect position. I wasn’t taking any chances. I felt like a Dakar warrior going in to battle. Although the road itself is only 38 miles (69KM) it descends from its highest point at La Cumbre pass at an altitude of 4,650 meters (15255 feet) down to 1,200 meters (3937 feet) in the town of Coroico in the Amazon Basin. This gives you an idea of how steep this trail really is. Its extreme drop offs of up to 800 meters on the side and lack of guard rails makes the single lane track a major attraction for downhill mountain bikers. Most of the trail is no wider than 3 meters and rain, fog and dust can have a huge impact on visibility. Its loose surfaces of mud and rocks and the high risk of land slides make it one of South Americas most dangerous roads.
In 1995, the Inter-American Development bank deemed it the worlds most dangerous road based on the death rate per mile and according to their sources up to 200 people had died on this road at that stage. Their stats released in ’95 claimed that an average of 26 vehicles dropped over the side of the road each year and it was at that point they said enough was enough and funded the development of an alternative road. The old road was no longer maintained and is now typically only used by thrill seeking downhill mountain bikers and the occasional pasty Brits who fancy their chances on a couple of well used Suzuki DRz’s. Why would you want to ride this road you may ask? As we rode north of La Paz to the starting point, I was asking myself that very same question.
The research we had done to the build up of this ride was sufficient to scare Team BMW off so we left them and their very posh bikes back at the hotel along with all of our luggage. The bike felt brand new again without the additional weight and I was reminded that I was effectively riding a full blown dirt bike. I was as ready as I could be to take on the off-road challenge. The moderate climate in La Paz had me right over and I assumed that the rest of the days ride would only get warmer as we proceeded deeper in to the Amazon Basin so once fully armored up, I donned the thin summer gloves. Yeah those ones with the gaping holes in from my crash in Colombia. I had no idea we had a snow section to clear at the high pass at La Cumbre prior to beginning the trail. Despite being as keen as possible to get to the start of the trail and lose a few hundred meters of altitude, whenever we tried to open the bikes up they would cough and splutter as if being strangled. A tell tale sign that we were at a ridiculously high altitude with much lower levels of oxygen.
As we neared the starting point of the trail we were pulled over by a copper who was clearly after something but his thick Bolivian accent meant we couldn’t quite put our finger on what it was. I immediately whipped my gloves off expecting to see frost-bitten finger tips under there but it just turned out I was being a pussy and after warming them slightly on the engine, I was ready to try and understand what the police man was mumbling on about. It turned out a toll ticket was necessary to drive on the highway we were using to find the start of the trail but we had completely missed the ticket office. He insisted that we needed to ride 26KM back in the direction we had come from to pay the necessary fee before returning to show him the ticket. It was far too cold to be riding back and not knowing what the day had in store for us we couldn’t afford to lose any more time so we had to try a different approach. At first he point blank refused a bribe but once the group of Bolivians on our left hand side had left, we gave it another go. This time he accepted our offering with both hands and a dirty grin before waving us on our way.
I should to be careful how I word the experience we had on Death Road as it was day of mixed emotions. Although the trail isn’t the most technical of trails, the consequences of a mistake would have been fatal. For most of the ride handling the bike over the off-road terrain, riding under waterfalls and avoiding the huge drops on the side of the road had our adrenaline rushing but on the flip side, seeing the crosses of remembrance of those who had been killed and the wrecks of buses and various other vehicles at the bottom of some of the drops made me feel a little ashamed that I was thrill seeking in an environment that had cost so many Bolivians their lives. An unforgettable experience in more ways than one.
It was boiling hot by the time we reached the bottom but we weren’t getting back to La Paz without first clearing that frozen mountain pass again. That same mountain pass that nearly had me in tears stubbornly believing my finger-tips were gonners. The eerie hotel with no other guests had never looked so appealing. We were freezing cold, soaking wet and covered in mud. Team BMW had laid on a nice little surprise in recognition of successful completion of the ‘Worlds Most Dangerous Road’. It’s funny how such small gestures can mean so much when you’ve been on the road for so long.
Onwards from La Paz, southbound on Highway One to a town that must surely be called Shit-hole. The only source of food we could find which wasn’t swarming in blue-arsed flies was some empanadas, a Latin American staple. Small pasty like parcels stuffed with questionable quality beef deep-fried in a cauldron no less than 10 years old by a toothless lady on a street corner. The taste is acceptable simply because of the smile they are served with. One dusty unknown town to the next.This is Bolivia and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Next on to Challapata, well known as the hub of Bolivia’s illegal vehicle trade. Bolivia feels tiny in comparison to Peru and we’re making good ground. These people have nothing but huge grins and even bigger hearts. I started to grow fond of Bolivia’s people which was tarnished only by another bent copper who pulled us over waving a device he claimed to be a speed gun.
We’d been stopped on numerous occasions in Bolivia but up until now they had all been decent enough guys interested in what we were doing. We were speeding and this guy was well within his rights to pull us over but I could see from the word go that he was a nasty piece of work who wanted more than the value of a speeding ticket. He asked for my licence, I handed him my old expired card. He couldn’t speak English and wouldn’t be able to interpret it anyway. He asked for my passport, I handed him a laminated copy. He then informed me that he didn’t have the necessary paper work to fine a foreigner on the side of the road and that in order to pay my fine we would have to ride all the way back to a town over 250km away. I knew this wasn’t how it worked as I had been stopped no more than 100km earlier in the day. The previous officer had warned me of corruption in the Police Force and that I should always take note of the officers ID number down before involving myself in any conversation. He didn’t have a vehicle and he didn’t have my legit paper work so I knew I could ride off at any point and leave him standing but I was interested to see how this one played out. He mentioned how we could solve this with an on-the-spot fine but it would have to be $60 USD for each rider. A little on the steep side given the average monthly salary in Bolivia is short of $400. Once I had made it clear I was making a note of his I.D. number his colleague instructed him to give me my paper work back and let us ride on without needing to pay a penny.
Onwards and we rode through varying altitudes and varying climates narrowly avoiding becoming road kill to herds of llamas and packs of viscous looking stray dogs all fancying a bite of an Alpinestars Tech 10 for dinner. Then, decision time. Left to stick on the tarmac and ride the remaining distance with Team BMW or right in to the unknown. Just the two of us. A dusty trail marked merely as a faint line on the already proven unreliable map we sourced back in Cuzco. Two 28-liter brimmed Safari fuel tanks on board. We took the right, wave bye to Team BMW and feeling invincible, spin the back wheels up as soon as we hit the dirt. We rode for hours until we couldn’t ride any further.
The sand was so flooded there was no chance of continuing but on our right hand side we had the option to mount the rail track to clear the flooded area. We’d ridden the BAM road in Siberia. Train tracks were our forte, right? Wrong. In the words of Dan Walsh ‘never an expert, always an enthusiast’, Brookbanks steps up and over confidently tries to ride the bridge without first identifying the most suitable path. He had completely mis-read the size of the gaps between the sleepers and despite agreeing we would ride in the middle of the two tracks headed straight on to the bridge on the right hand side. The gaping holes in between each sleeper had him bouncing around like a mad man. He nearly came straight off the side but somehow managed to pull the bike up-right and hold it there until I arrive and between us pull the bike in to the middle of the two tracks. I was laughing but crying knowing it was my turn next. Any excessive movements at this altitude leaves you short of breath. Still no idea if he should expect any trains on this line, he dropped the hammer before then dropping the bike. This is Bolivia and this is the absolute dog’s danlgies.
Arrival in Uyini, another overrated, underpopulated dusty dive in existence only to feed a growing tourism trade of wealthy Westerners eager to experience the awe inspiring Salar de Uyini. And quite rightly so. Otherwise known as Bolivia’s Salt Flats the Salar is the dried remains of a 10,582 square kilometer (4,086 sq mi) salt lake which when flooded by a Bolivian wet season provides a surreal environment incomparable to anything either of us had ever seen.
This is Bolivia and I’m convinced that riding doesn’t get better than this.
Once we learned that the Salar was flooded we realised we couldn’t do the 2 day ride over the flats to cross over to Chile. The salt water is so corrosive we feared if we left it on the bikes over night we may not have any bikes left in the morning so we decided to spray everything with a coating of WD-40 and just ride the flats for no more than a couple of hours. Not knowing how to get to the start of the flats we tried to discretely follow a 4×4 full of tourists but the driver clocked on, pulled over and asked us what we were up to. I chuckled and agreed to throw him some Boliviano’s, equivalent of a few quid if he would let us follow him to the start of the flats at which point we would go our own way and cruise for a few hours on our own. It was literally just us out there. Miles and miles of complete freedom. Impossible to judge depth or speed, at times it felt like we were just floating. Once everything was suitably covered in salt we headed back to Uyini and to a local motorcycle tour company where they power-washed our bikes down for us. The brotherhood once again playing an important role in this Tough Miles journey.
Onwards again… no time to hang around. Back on to the tarmac up to Potosi, the worlds highest city before heading south to join Highway One again to cross the border in to Argentina. Highway One, the Number 1 road in Bolivia, right? Wrong. Turns out the map we picked up is newer than that freaking road. Highway One as it happened hadn’t even been built yet. We rode all day on an intense off-road route. Our bodies were aching and no idea when this was likely to end. In parts the road was in worse condition than Death Road and every other corner would contain a series of crosses to remember the dead. “What the hell are we doing here, mate?”
The sun was setting but clinging to the mountain side, the road was so narrow we couldn’t stop to pitch up the tents as there was simply no room for our tents and a passing vehicle. Darker and darker, colder and colder the ride continued to get even more terrifying. Corner after corner with no end in sight we ended up riding in to the pitch blackness with the hundred foot drops illuminated only by the moonlight and a DRz headlight powered by 12v battery which was over 25,000 miles old. We’ve had a few moments on this trip but this one is definitely up there with the hairiest. We stopped and discussed our options. Did we take any photos? The ability to get the camera out when the fear factor is so high is something we are yet to get the hang of. We continued on for hours in to the night conscious that we had no food or water left and that fuel levels were ever diminishing. Eventually the GPS indicated that we were dropping in altitude. We’d come to the bottom of a valley and there we saw it, the bright lights of a hotel! At first I thought I was losing my mind but sure enough, smack bang in the arse-end of nowhere was a hotel with a lady standing by the door. When I asked if she could put us up she immediately said she was full. When I asked if we could pitch up the tents outside her hotel she seemed to take pity on us and somehow managed to free up a room. Awake at first light to work out where the hell we were. Initial impression… Nice room.
That was Bolivia. And that was outstanding. Onwards, southbound. Next stop Argentina. I’m ready for a steak.