The Bridge At Ilave

We left Copacabana and Bolivia and rode the 8 miles to the Peruvian border. On the previous day we checked with bus drivers doing the Puno run as to the status of the blocked bridge at Ilave. Some good news! The passengers now had to decamp at the roadblock, then climb across the barricade to walk over the bridge where the Peruvian bus was waiting – a 5-minute walk instead of the previous 7km hike. Also there was some hope that the protest was all coming to a head and the bridge may even be unblocked today! Checking out of Bolivia took around 5 minutes and then a few hundred yards away it took another half hour to admit us into Peru. The customs guy showed us some newspaper cuttings of the situation up at Ilave and said that we may well be able to cross the river somewhere but to be careful. Yesterday we had met two Argentine guys on a Honda Transalp and a Kawasaki KLR650. We felt bad as we ruined their day by telling them about the bridge at Ilave (they had no idea of the situation there and had just finished a pleasing lunch on the lakefront when they met us). The customs guy said, sure they came through yesterday and hadn’t returned which could be a good sign.

On into Peru it was a 60-mile ride to Ilave along the western shore of Titicaca. It was another beautiful clear sky day with the blue lake shimmering on the horizon over on out right. The Peruvian countryside was a lot more orderly than Bolivia – the people working the little farms seemed happier and waved to us as we rode along through scenery again reminiscent of Scots-Irish Loughs. The road was deserted – not surprising given it was blocked up ahead and we soon had covered the short ride to Ilave. The first signs were rock chicanes across the road that we rode through easily but added as a warning that something was up on the road ahead. There were several burned out tyres here and there but thankfully no burned out vehicles. Then we were headed down a short hill with fleets of buses and mini-buses parked along either side allowing only a single lane of traffic to pass. Then it was there – the bridge. It was well and truly blocked by a huge sheet like a billboard with steel girders wedged up behind it. The town of Ilave was spread out across the other side of the river. First strike – we were not going to ride across that bridge.

Down at the bridge the situation was bedlam. There were vehicles everywhere trying to get down on to the riverbank to cross the river, which was wide but seemed shallow at the bridge. There were also minibuses trying to position themselves to carry passengers away from the bridge back to Bolivia. Mixed into this were hordes of local hawkers selling water, soft drinks and snacks as well as people just out to watch all the fun. We were soon caught up in the hopeless tangle, until a couple of locals managed to open a path clear for us onto a dirt road that lead east, away from the bridge towards Titicaca. From here we were able to stop & survey the situation. The bridge was blocked. A road lead upstream to the west and then curved down around and under the bridge to the riverbank 15 metres down below the road we were on. The problem was, a huge articulated lorry had gone down and was now stuck in soft sand under the bridge. A swarm of locals attended it like ants trying to dig out the wheels. I took a walk down to see if we could ride round it but it was hopeless. Meanwhile, Mags up with the bikes met a young chap who told her that the 2 Argentines had made it through. This guy & some friends had helped carry the bikes over the river on a lorry. There were 2 open back lorries down on the bank below and an old tractor sitting out in the river ready to pull them out if they got stuck. We were offered the same service for $10 a bike – it would be easy and all we had to do was to get the bikes down the 15-metre bank and onto the riverbank. I started to walk downstream to check out a muddy slope that looked promising and had not gone more than a few metres when we heard the roar of an angry crowd coming from the town.

The scene that unfolded was like something from a David Lean movie – you know Lawrence of Arabia or one of those epics set in India with a cast of thousands. Looking across the river streams of people were marching towards the bridge chanting and shouting. Smaller rivulets joined in from the side to swell the throng. The workers trying to free the big artic fled, as did all the locals and hawkers around the bridge as if an air raid was approaching. Van drivers were soon flying past us so we got on the bikes and joined the rout, riding a few hundred yards along the road to a safe vantage point where we could still observe the action. Strike 2 – we were not crossing the river at the bridge, at least not until the protest died down and peace resumed. We asked several locals what was happening and they said that things were coming to a head. They reckoned the row at the bridge would subside and that we were OK here and would be best to wait until it all died down. Then we could get down on the riverbank and get across on the lorry. It was really scary. Our retreat back to Bolivia was blocked. To do this we would have to ride past the blockade and it looked really hairy. While we were waiting we chatted to some of the locals who seemed friendly and fed up with the whole business. They didn’t care much for their mayor –a guy called Robles – it seems he was a bit of a crook and had refused to resign so they blocked the bridge. It had been blocked for 25 days now but recently things were stirring and it looked like today it might all be resolved. Looking for some way out of our desperate situation, we hoped that this might result in the bridge being unblocked. There were some kids around and we spent a while chatting to one of them in particular, a serious little guy called William who was interested in our trip and seemed keen to help us. He was only around 11 or 12 years of age but he would be an angel! Another young guy came up on from the bridge riding a mountain bike. Daniel was in his late teens and told us it was all very angry at the protest and we had best wait a while to see what would happen. We asked around if there was any other way across and a few people mentioned another ford downstream towards the lake and away from the troubled bridge. Daniel disappeared but returned about 15 minutes later saying that he had checked and we could cross there and get on the road to Puno.

As the position at the bridge remained unchanged, with lots of angry shouting and hurrahs, we set off to explore this possible crossing. We rode cross-country over farmland for about 3 or 4 kilometres and down a sandy shaly track following Daniel on his mountain bike. It was tough going on our fully loaded BMs and there were sections where we had to crawl through. Mags waited with one bike whilst I took the other down on to flatter terrain where we met a sharp-faced man who I took to be the landowner. He claimed not to speak Spanish (most locals speak the Indian Quechua tongue around here) and was angry with Daniel at bringing us to the ford. He was a stringy mean looking individual, an appearance enhanced by the cattle whip he held in his hand and from what I could gather he wanted to know how much money we had paid Daniel to bring us here. Daniel told him there was no money involved and I dismounted to try and negotiate a price for the crossing. Sharp-face man was not convinced – we had paid Daniel and he wanted to know how much. He started telling Daniel to go back but it seemed he was ready to do a deal with us, when all of a sudden the young kid William appeared from nowhere. He explained to the angry man that we were ‘medicos’ working for a Cancer Charity, that we were good people and that he should help us (he had picked this all up from our chat at the bridge, where we had explained our pannier logos). It did the job! Angry mans temper subsided and he took us all down to the ford and explained the best way to cross. I walked back up to get Mags and the second bike.

Unlike at the bridge, the river here was quite deep. Angry man had disappeared leaving William & Daniel to show us the way across. They had stripped down to their undies and waded over showing me where to ride. I had read a little of river crossings prior to the trip and to be honest had quite looked forward to having a go at it. However I had imagined riding through a bubbling little brook with water that just about covered the wheel rims on the bike. Here I would be riding through water that came over the top of my boots – almost up to seat level on the bike! I took KP, my bike first. It was about 300 metres to cross the river and the ford ran in an arched shaped with a sharp stone bottom. I took it easy staying in first gear with my feet down and using the clutch to pull the bike across bit by bit. Daniel & William led the way and we soon had the bike crossing the river. The aluminium panniers helped to steady things acting like floats to keep the bike upright. Near the far side, I stalled on a hollow and dropped the bike, fortunately away from the air intake side, which stayed dry. The 2 guys helped me right her up and she started first time to pull me on and out of the river. First success! The second bike was easier to bring over using a bit more power to ride across. The BMs were excellent throughout today and our faith in them has been restored as they pulled through the troubled terrain with ease. Mags waded over with our gear and that was it – we were across and ready for Puno! We said farewell to William at this point. He was a brilliant little kid and he saved the day for us with the angry farmer. His intervention completely defused a horrible dilemma. Daniel insisted on taking us around Ilave, as he didn’t think it was wise to ride through the town. We followed him on his mountain bike and he took us around the back streets of this most shabby and desolate place. After about 15 minutes, we were back on the tarmac road that would take us to Puno with the horrors of the bridge at Ilave safely behind us. We said farewell to Daniel. It was funny, neither he nor William expected any payment for their help and we had to insist that they take something. These two young chaps shine out as two stars of our Pan-American adventure and incidents like this, scary as the bridge scenes were, really restore your faith in humanity.

The short ride on to Puno was completed with no problems except for our wet feet from the river crossing. Once again people waved at us as we rode by elated at our successful negotiation of the river and our travels were again rewarded with a lovely little hotel – the ‘El Lago’, with smiling friendly staff who helped us unload our bikes and put them away safely for the night.

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