Chilean Exit, Riders on the Storm, La Paz Revolution, Lake Titicaca & The Ferry from Hell!

The ride from Chile into Bolivia was short. 40 miles took us from Putre back through Lauca National Park to the border where we were quickly and efficiently exited by the Chilean Migration & Customs authorities. To complete the exit we had to go see the Police and met a charming chubby little Policeman suitably dressed for this chill outpost. He had a look at the bikes & was happy we’d been through the other offices & had our paperwork all stamped correctly for exit. We thanked him for his wonderful country and he gave Mags a little hand painted wooden key ring, a souvenir of Lago Chungara! Where else in the world would this happen? We took some photos with him and waved a sad farewell to Chile, another fantastic travel experience completed.

Into Bolivia… As we crossed no-mans land, the Chileans had a car out picking up litter. South Americans are terrible litterbugs, throwing papers, empty bottles & cans where they will. In Chile & Argentina this is managed by employing people to pick the litter up which helps contain some of it, but now on entering Bolivia there was litter everywhere. The border crossing at Tambo Quemado was fine taking 30 minutes or so to fill in the visa forms for us and the temporary import papers for the bikes. We then fuelled up and set off for Patacamaya on a stunning tarmac road that took us past the 6549m Volcan Sajama and through an array of canyons and rippled red rock formations that demanded a slow pace to take it all in. The people changed too – now we were seeing for the first time those chubby, sun-browned, bowler hatted Andean women out working the fields in their multi-layered dresses (the women seem to do all the heavy manual work here). The landscape is weird. Where in the developed world, farms tend to be neat & tidy with boundaries and fields clearly defined by hedges, roads or stone walls, here the crops are planted in a higgledy-piggledy fashion, so you see vast wildernesses with here and there bits of land that have been cultivated in no particular order or pattern.

We rode from bright blue skies into a landscape covered in billowy clouds that gradually thickened on our approach to the Serrania de Sicasica, a low mountain range that was covered in granite grey clouds emanating thunder and lightning. It was a spectacular skyscape that more than matched the already incredible landscape, but we stopped and donned our wetsuits before riding into the storm. We immediately hit light drizzle that thickened into heavy rain and then hailstones the size of ice-cubes. The lightning strikes were incredible and we felt very vulnerable sitting atop the only metal objects for miles. Fortunately we rode through it over the next 30 miles and by the time we reached the main La Paz highway at Patacamaya, it had slackened to a light drizzle.

Our first stop in Bolivia would be in La Paz, the capital. All day we were riding across the altiplano at some 4000 metres. Up ahead we could see a weird illusion of clouds lying on the ground. They were actually the ceiling over the huge canyon that contains the city of La Paz some 400 metres below. The approach was horrible taking us through the shanty slum of El Alto, the fastest growing city in South America. It was a ramshackle of a place that stretched for miles. Everything looked brown and dirty. Puddles of reeking cold-coffee water covered stretches of the road and the traffic was choking and chaotic. There is a lot of poverty in Bolivia with 60% unemployment amongst a population, which is around 90% indigenous, most of whom live by subsistence farming. Throw into this poor education and political instability (in the first 180 odd years of Bolivia’s existence they had over 170 presidents!) and you end up with a land of chaos and confusion. There is also a reluctance to change or improve things and with only 10% of the population paying taxes nothing ever gets done. As in other poor countries, poverty in the countryside drives young people into the cities and the result is shantytowns like El Alto, where dreams of fortunes made quickly turn to dust. We rode through mile after mile of this hoping that La Paz would offer something better. Eventually the road widened and a tollbooth loomed up ahead where we paid a few pennies for the privilege of riding through the slum. Or so we thought…

On the other side the road took us to the rim of a canyon and down below lay the city of La Paz. It was one of the most fantastic sights either of us has ever seen. Imagine if you will the Grand Canyon, a pretty awesome sight to behold. Imagine then the Grand Canyon with a city of 1.5 million people dumped into it and you will see La Paz! In the near background the massive snow covered peak of Illimani (6439 metres) made the whole scene pretty beyond belief and the whole vista set the hairs on the back of our necks a-tingling. The road took us down off the canyon rim on a snake path down to the bottom. It is almost impossible to get lost in La Paz, you just head downhill until you reach the bottom and there you will find the main drag. It turned into a pretty impressive metropolis too, with huge hotels, banks and businesses lining the route. It was now getting dark and a local lad on an old Honda FT500 offered to show us where the hotels were. We set off on a steep climb through a maze of cobbled streets made slippery with market produce and dirty water channels. Eventually we found a downhill street with several hostels, but it was so narrow & steep we couldn’t even get off our laden bikes! As there didn’t seem to be anywhere to leave the bikes we asked him if he could find us a place with a few more stars on the rating. We rode downhill back onto the main drag and across it to a small street behind a biggish hotel. At this point we dispensed with our guide & checked out the hotel, the ‘Europe’. It was an exceedingly posh establishment and rooms ran at $175 a night! – well above our meagre travel budget. We set off in the darkening streets on the lookout for either a cheaper hotel or a tourist information bureau with advice on where to find them. Fortunately we came across the former first, the modest Hotel España, with a good comfy room and a lock-up yard for the bikes.

We spent Tuesday 20th April browsing the myriad back streets and markets of La Paz. In the markets up behind the delightful old colonial church of San Francisco, there were tons of souvenirs to be had for next to nothing. It was all of little use to us with our limited capacity to carry stuff on the bike, but very colourful all the same. We traipsed through the Mercado de Los Brujos, the Witches Market, where you could buy various charms and potions, including Llama foetuses to ward off various evils and ills. We found La Paz a charming place and we visited the Coca museum, an excellent little establishment describing the history of use and abuse of the coca leaf. Locals have used it for thousands of years as an energy booster, a practice the church abolished as ungodly when the Europeans arrived. However, when they realised that use of the leaf significantly improved the yield from the slave miners in the silver mines at Potosi, a quick U-turn was executed and the leaf was blessed and approved. It is still used as a flavour in Coca-Cola (although they now extract the cocaine from it first) and the museum also showed how it has been used as an anaesthetic ingredient. It is obviously the source of Cocaine and there was a fitting poem describing how this leaf, which is such a friend and aid to the locals, would turn to poison in the iron hearts of the white conquerors, as it was the white settlers who developed the chemistry to extract the cocaine product from the leaves. We also visited the depressing national art gallery, full of colonial religious art (mostly depicting the horrible deaths of various saints) and tasteless Bolivian Modern art, which did little to inspire either of us.

For all its charm, there was an air of tension about the city that left us both feeling a little uneasy throughout the day. Back in October last year, fierce riots led to some 200 deaths across the country as another president was deposed. His replacement hasn’t come with the goods so now people are clamouring for his removal, which means more protests on the streets. Our hotel was down near the University of La Paz and the students haven’t been in class since January due to lack of funding. Throngs of them littered the area and in the morning we saw a protest march – very vocal complete with firecracker bangs, which we quickly avoided. In its wake were scores of riot police, heavily armed with shotguns and tear gas canisters. We also found out in the afternoon that a recent small increase in the price of fuel by 3 centavos per litre, will lead to a national transport strike on Thursday with the eager participation of the students.

We had a stunning dinner on the Tuesday night of steak and seafood – one of the best meals of the trip, but again there was an air of tension in the streets as we walked the short distance back to the hotel, with more loud bangs as more firecrackers went off. In the night, we were wakened by several really loud bangs, small explosions across the city, and in the morning an armed police officer had appeared in the reception area of the hotel. The receptionist confirmed that the strike was going ahead tomorrow and advised us not to leave the hotel for the day while it was on. A visit to the British Consulate not far from the hotel confirmed this advice. The strike decided us to cut short our stay here and leave La Paz immediately for a 90-mile ride to Copacabana; a tourist spot for visiting the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca, which would be a lot quieter. So we loaded up and rode out, through streets full of sullen students and even more riot police, the whole area nervous with tension from the impending strike.

Fortunately we had an uneventful exit from the city and a pleasant ride up to the lake under a cornflower blue sky. Lake Titicaca has been high on Mags list of sights to see around the world for many years and today was for her a dream come true. Once out of the suburbia of La Paz we followed the straight run up to Batallas and on to Huarina along the lake. The scruffy green brown scenery of the lake shoreline was incredibly reminiscent of our homeland in County Down, giving both of us flashbacks to Sunday runs out along the Ards peninsular to Portaferry, where we would take the 10 minute ferry across to Strangford and then run on down to Newcastle and the Mourne Mountains. Just like home we had a ferry waiting at Tiquina to take us across a narrow straight of fast water that separates the main bulk of Titicaca from the smaller Lago de Huiñaymarca. However where the Strangford Ferry is a straightforward roll-on / roll-off flat bedded motor vessel, the Bolivian equivalent was an open ended wooden barge with an outboard engine, capable of carrying 2 cars or a small bus or lorry. Our hearts sank when we saw the split planking ramp that would take us onto the small barge. There were gaps between the loose ancient decking planks wide enough to put a bike wheel or a leg through and the whole assembly was a bit wobbly to say the least. We teetered gingerly onto the barge to take our place side by side behind an already loaded Hi-Ace Vanette. There was no question of dismounting so we had to just sit on the bikes that were left in gear for the journey over to the other side, balanced nervously like tightrope walkers on wood.

The ferry crossing was one of the most nerve-wracking things either of us has ever done on a bike. The ferry crossed the straight beam-side on to the plentiful lapping waves, which soon had the whole contraption rocking from side to side. Both of us sat there on our bikes balancing precariously whilst the waves tried hard to push us off by violently rocking us this way and that. We were continuously watching our footing to avoid the gaps between the planks, through which we could see horrible bilge water below. At times it wasn’t too bad as we could harmonise our wobbles to coincide with the wave motion, but this proved to be unpredictable and irregular and such moments were short lived. The worst moment was when the little Hi Ace van set up a pendulum motion, bouncing up and down using the full extent of its suspension travel and threatening to fall over into the lake! The ancient toothless ferryman came up to help hold Mags bike steady (I think her screams drew his attention!) and eventually we made it across. The drama wasn’t over yet – now we had to get off, which meant carefully dismounting from our dodgy plank-tightrope to push the fully loaded bikes backwards up on to another gap-plank ramp and down onto the shore. We managed it one bike at a time with the help of the ferryman and the van driver and we swore at a crowd of useless German tourists who stood by smiling at our struggles. A fantastic reward awaited in the form of 20 miles of twisty road that climbed over a mountain to drop us into Copacabana down on the lake. The scenery was straight out of the Isle of Man and riding that road was like running the TT only with Bolivian potholes of course! We arrived in Copacabana in such a state of exhilaration having escaped the angry strikers of La Paz, survived the mad ferry crossing and gorged ourselves on adrenaline on the mountain road. To cap it all we found a beautiful lake front room in the Hostal Leyenda, complete with a sofa made from lake reeds and our own private balcony over the lake to sit & watch the glorious sunsets over the lake (and all for ₤6 a night!). What a fantastic day!

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