As directed the night before, we arrived to the border at 8am. Were they ready for us? Of course not. But don’t worry, the gentleman politely asked for a bribe in order to speed things up. A fine and upstanding civil servant. Minutes later we rode across the imaginary line into another country, Bolivia. They welcomed us with a $160 entrance fee, lots of extra forms, and a requirement to submit a detailed itinerary printed out. That meant finding nearby internet and printing, conveniently located next door. After a hot photo session with immigration, we were on our way to Copacabana.
Since we hadn’t eaten anything yet, we were on a mission for food of the breakfast variety. Since Copa is a touristy area, this was easily found. Two mountains of crepes arrived at our table along with a bunch of scrambled chicken fetuses. Oh and we indulged in some WiFi. Copa was our missed destination from the night before and so while it seemed like a cool town, we were destined for La Paz. Lapaz wasn’t far but we knew that wouldn’t necessarily equate to a short ride, we were right. Our short ride included a short ferry, mountain twisties, a ride through the seemingly lawless outskirts of La Paz, and then the absolute ridiculousness that is riding in La Paz.
As we closed in on the city, our eyes began to open to the fact that Bolivia is unlike the countries we had ridden through before it. Maybe it was the guy chasing a monstrous horde of dogs while pelting them with rocks, or the road having heaping piles of rubble strewn about, or maybe something you just can’t even place your finger on. Things got complicated and annoying when we made a wrong turn. The traffic was thick like Michael Moore’s neck fat and the cars among it had no regard for motorcycles. In Bolivia motorcycles are the minority unlike everywhere else we had been. Tim got trapped between two taxis, a taxi knocked me over and gave me a dead glare before laughing. We began to get frustrated. Eventually we found our way and got a hostel, finally.
Once we were all settled in at the hostel, it was time to forage this new and supposedly dangerous city for food. Nothing was really speaking to us so we eventually settled on a pseudo fast food place that served up Bolivian food. After we wandered the streets a bit, stopped in a couple bars but ultimately returned back to the hostel before midnight.
We awoke with no concrete plan other than some necessary bike maintenance.I changed my oil, Tim worked to minimize the leak from his fork seals. From there we had a decision to make, whether to stay another day in La Paz or spend Carnival in Oruro. So we left to ride 60 miles to Oruro for the biggest party of the year in Bolivia.
I’d compare Oruro to Sturgis in the US. A small town that normally wouldn’t cause a blip on the radar just goes completely insane. As we arrived and accidentally rode through parades here and there, we began to see just how huge this party was. On every street there were people dawning costumes to prepare for the main festivities which would begin later in the night. Thousands, tens of thousands.
After much frustration with each street we turned down being either closed or swarmed with people, and after stopping at close to a dozen places, we found a place that would store our bikes inside. They had no rooms but it was our (mis) understanding that we could sleep on the floor by the bikes. We ran into two other guys on a bike and they parked with us. The four of us headed out to soak in as much Carnival as we could.
Our first order of business was to purchase cans of foam. We didn’t know much about Carnival but we did know that you would be foamed whether you liked it or not, so it’s better if you can return the favor. These cans of foam are a good representation of how important Carnival is to the people. In the poorest country in South America, everyone engages in the festivities and yet, one can of foam is the same price as a meal.
The streets were lined on both sides with large makeshift bleachers, packed to the gills. Ladders and scaffolding brought us to the top where we could begin to see the parade. Was this safe? I’m going to guess not even slightly. From the stands, I started to truly feel like I was part of Carnival as locals welcomed us with drinks and camaraderie.At first I politely said no to their drink offers but eventually I realized that it confused the hell out of them for me not to drink and I caved. I drank their mystery drinks of soda and clear alcohol.
We made our way back down to ground level and decided it was time to be IN the parade. We hopped over the partition and became spectacles for the people in the stands. We danced, laughed, and accepted the fact that four gringoes will indeed be everyone’s target for foam. From then on out, we were engaged in a war where headshots rained supreme with a liquid that says to avoid contact with eyes, hair, and mouths.
Tim and I spent the remainder of the night as part of the parade. In a sea of over 100,000 people, we were the only white people I saw in the parade and I felt totally welcome. It was one of the most fun experiences of my life.
Eventually things began to wind down after a large finale so we headed back towards the bikes. Each street we walked down smelled more like urine than the last. It was a bad night for me to be in sandals. I questioned whether Tim actually knew where we were going but he was adamant that he did, and eventually we found our bikes.
This is where the night got interesting. The girl we left our bikes with was gone and there was a new sheriff in town. This guy could not be bargained with. He wasn’t motivated by money and wouldn’t break any rules. The rule in question being whether or not we could sleep next to our bikes. A long series of arguments ensued, in Spanish, that eventually led to him calling the police while we laid like slugs on the floor refusing to leave. When we realized he was never going to leave us alone, we made the decision on our own to go. So at 3am, we left Oruro to ride into the desert. Was this smart or safe? Nope but he left us with little alternative. Two tries for gas and we paid the local price.
Our eyelids became heavy as we followed the long and desolate road out of town. We rode with faceshields up and headsets on full volume. After an hour of riding we banged a right into the desert and camped near some train tracks. We slept until close to noon.
With a late start, our proposed destination was the town of Sucre. It was only a few hours away. We stopped for some bread and water to hold us over and then continued onward. No more than 10 minutes later, I had a rear blowout. Of course this had to happen to a brand new tire. I pulled over and got out my plug kit. But just like last time, the hole was too large to plug. I attempted to use 4 plugs as a temporary fix but it still leaked. So we removed the wheel and Tim went in search of a patch while I laid with the llamas.
An hour or so later Tim arrived with my patched tire, we threw it on, and we left. This patch would normally be a permanent fix but the hole was so large the patch showed through. So we obviously spent the rest of the day riding difficult off road. During this seemingly never ending offroad, we experienced rain, hail, slick clay, deep mud, sand, rocks, a drunk homeless guy I had to kick, water balloons, water crossings, a fall or two, and epicly beautiful landscape.
We arrived in Sucre around 9pm and stayed at the first Hostel we found which turned out to be exceptionally nice. We ate dinner at a nearby bar and then passed out. In the morning we indulged in free breakfast while chatting with a dude from South Africa and then walked around partaking in more Carnival. While passing a bodega, we decided to up the ante. Instead of returning fire with water balloons, we fired back with eggs. This may seem harsh but it’s fair when it seems like the whole city is targeting you. It was insanely fun and we were insanely wet.
At night we hung out with Sam from a nearby hostel and swapped travel stories. We braved the streets before calling it a night and counted our blessings that a drunk driver didn’t mow us down. In the morning we began the search for my replacement tire. Now we were told that everything would be closed for two more days while people continued to celebrate. However, we wanted to leave and it would be best to leave on a new tire.
The search began at the city market. For a day where everything is closed, it was filled with vendors and shoppers. Each vendor we asked pointed us in a new direction. Eventually we averaged out three responses and it sent us outside the market. The first few moto shops didn’t have my tire. Then we found one, but it was $130 for a cheap Chinese tire. So much to Tim’s chagrin, we pressed on. The next shop had the same tire for $50. I bought it along with two tubes. Nothing like trusting your life to a tire branded Kingston. The walk home I felt like a moving target. Buckets of water fell from the sky, balloons continuously hit me, and every kid was armed with a water cannon. Sure I fired back here and there, but I was simply outgunned. I arrived with underwear so drenched it felt like it’d never dry.We woke the next day and prepped our bikes to leave. I changed my tire, we gassed up, and left.
We were in search of dynamite, according to our friend Dave, we could purchase it at the miner’s market in Potosi. Unfortunately when we got to Potosi, everything was closed due to the holiday. We escaped the water fight with some Argentinian girls and then we ate an excellent lunch and then continued onward. We attempted to fuel up before leaving but they wanted to rip us off on the price so we braved it and decided to try to make it to Uyuni with a half tank.
A few hours outside Potosi, we stopped near a lake we eventually realized was dried up, and camped. Tent up and we were asleep after a simple meal. In the morning we at oatmeal before leaving for Uyuni which was just an hour away.
Uyuni is the single largest tourist attraction in Bolivia, a country not very well known for tourism. However, it was the one place in the country where we saw other foreigners. As we arrived our tanks were very low so we searched for gas. There were three stations, each with lines more than thirty cars long. We soon found out that the attendants had simply been partying and didn’t show up for work. No one seemed overly surprised or even bothered by it. Eventually the line started moving. When our turn to fill finally arrived, we were expected to pay triple the price since we were outsiders. We refused. It then turned into a negotiation where after a lot of arguing we ended up paying double the price.
We filled our stomachs with lunch at a marginal Mexican place and then the sky opened up. Some of the hardest rain and hail I’ve ever encountered. We stood under separate awnings and just watched the streets rapidly fill with water. It was soon up to the chain on my poor bike. When it stopped we decided it was time to leave Bolivia and seek refuge from this god-awful place in Chile, where the beer flows like wine, where the women instinctively flock like the salmon of Capistrano.
After some discussion of the best route, we left Uyuni, stopping at the train graveyard on our way out. The road out is elevated above the flats below. It’s made of the same red clay many of the roads in Bolivia are made of. For awhile we moved along quickly at over 100kph. But soon it became slick as ice and I watched Tim and his bike slide down across the road. I slowed in a semi-controlled fashion until my front wheel was so caked with mud that it would no longer spin. We attempted to stop several cars returning from further ahead but since they’re Bolivians, they are trained not to help. After some internal debate, we decided that riding another 150 miles in these conditions would not be feasible.
Back in town we found a hostel that was surprisingly cheap. Turns out they didn’t have water, at all. They did have wifi. At this point Tim became very ill so our decision to stay was for the best. He would spend the next day in bed while I roamed around Uyuni, worked on the blog, etc.
Once Tim was back on his feet it was time to leave. We had made plans to meet up with Zoki to ride to Chile. We awoke at 5am to stop off at the salt flats before meeting Zoki. Our goal was to make it for sunrise, we missed it by a few minutes. However, we didn’t miss one the most beautiful places in the world at the perfect time. The flats had a few inches of water making a mirror as far as the eye could see. While I expressed my concern about riding in the salty water, Tim convinced me. He was right.
We took pictures but more importantly, we took it all in. Once back in Uyuni, we met with Zoki. We wanted to wash our bikes off so Zoki said he’d head out and we could catch up since we ride faster. What he didn’t count on is that it’d take us over 2 hours to find a place willing to wash our bikes. For whatever reason, they all refused.
We finally found a place and they did a fantastic job. We were finally leaving Bolivia. The road out was incredible. A fast dirt/gravel/clay road with incredible views in every direction. The clouds all along the way seemed almost cartoonish, like you could reach out and grab them. I’ll forever be impressed by the sheer diversity of the landscape in that small country. Hopefully someday the people embrace tourism a bit and learn to help others.