Bolivia: All the many different faces

A little late with the travel reports. Reasons are that I do not feel everyday alike to write down what I see, feel, experience. Then the internet connections are not always good enough to handle with larger amount of data and many times there are better things to do as just spend time in front of this my laptop. But today I look back to the beginning of February and my time in Bolivia, knowing the USA, Nicaragua to Panama and Colombia are missing, as well as Chile and Argentina and Paraguay and Brazil (from where I write today).

I split up with one by one during my travel in Peru with all the travel mates that I have met on the boat from Panama to Colombia (Juan and Lea from Argentina, Thorsten from beloved Munich, Daniel and Silvia from Switzerland, Karl from BVB-Town, Gabriel a decent Argentinean from Ireland and lately with Felipe and Silviana from Chile) for different reasons. Some want to go faster than I want. Others take a break when I want to go on. I enjoyed the mountains, others the beach. It’s a symbioses among bikers. A connection that is loosened and tightened on occasion. I like it that way.

My pre-impression’s from Bolivia where neutral to partly negative, since they had a fairly left wing government, are considered to be on the lower end of wealth in South America and that they do not care a lot about tourists (e.g. don’t sell fuel to foreigners is what I heared).

But I went with a fresh approach and gave it a chance. It is my way to reset all emotions at the border of a country and start neutrally observing and learning, experiencing and tasting the diversity of the next country. The “next” might feel a bit condescending for you, but it is not meant to be, it’s just the matter of the 12th country in less than 6 months that I travel through … I am truly blessed.

What I discovered in Bolivia? Have a look !
(like always, click on pictures to enlarge)

30APR2015, Foz di Iguazu, Brazil (date of this posting)
I hit the border of Bolivia at the Titicaca (which appears like a ocean when you stand in front of it) lake all by myself. The border was closed for Lunch. I arrived dry which means it started to rain as I arrived, and stopped when I left. 🙂

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That border crossing was one of the most familiar that I experienced. Almost like a son coming home. I hope that Europe and Germany will be like that when the day approaches. I rolled on with a blue and sunny sky and hit the little village of Copacabana in Bolivia. As a friend from Regensburg said he was surprised to hear another place exit’s named Copacabana than the beach in Rio de Janeiro. It happened to be. As I arrived I saw a Yamaha Super Teneree from a other rider parked on the side and I played the gas a little. I kept going and looked for the place of Felipe and Silviana who I wanted to meet again. I found the place but did not find them. I decided to check in and go “down the village” for a proper lunch. Carnival proceedings seem to have reached this place also. Like everywhere else (Rio, Cologne and the rest of the world) it is celebrated to have a good time supported with a lot of alcohol. Looking for a restaurant I ran into Liran from Israel, the owner of the Super Teneree. We met in Cartagena Colombia once for a short beer. At that time I was riding with others and he traveled with a French mate. Long story short we have had lunch together, decided to ride a while together which have been 2 months and approximate 11000km.

Leaving Copacabana for La Paz, the highest city in the world hosting a parliament (La Paz is not the Capital of Bolivia, but Sucre), we took a little of way to see the most important archeological site of Bolivia. The ride there was quite nice, passing through a low populated farming area and some off road stretch. Arriving there we have been surprised. The site was not as expected and touristically not at all on the level that Peru had to offer. Money was missing, it was less shiny and less inviting. In short Bolivia need to learn from Peru how to prepare the sites so that tourists spend their money there. So the first face of Bolivia is that they are not on the level to present themselves as the others around (Colombia and Peru). Then we drove over to La Paz. What a impressive place. On the level from 4100 to 3200m above sea, almost a million people and houses as far as you can see. The city is locked between the mountains. Every square meter is used.

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We had a rest there and discovered a lot of things there.
One was a day trip to do the “Death Road” the most dangerous road in the world. This road had killed so many people in the past. Reason was that it is not paved and mostly only 3m wide, where after the edge from the sheer is 700-900 meters down the valley. Since 5 years or so there is a bypass road build. Today the death road is used by 100-200 bicyclists who go downhill to earn a “I survived the Death Road” T-shirt. In fact this is the only road that is left hand driving in all Bolivia, and since we came from the bottom they need to pass us on the right. Which was fairly difficult for them since they needed to pass me (in front) between the sheer and me. Some of them have been scared to death. Some passed me on the left! although no space. And some earned that t-shirt that day. Some because of me and my exhaust giving them a screamy time … 😉
So the next face of Bolivia was that they have green mountains with roads that pass through little waterfalls and that are exiting to ride, with and without engine.

La Paz itself is chaotic and traffic is horrible. I can’t understand why these Latinos live this machoism so much when driving. It’s a everyday’s fight. While in the city we have been looking for patches for my bags to fix. I have had holes vibrated in and wanted to fix them with a tire repair kit. Like all over Latin America all same kind of stores are in the same area. So we went there and asked in one shop. All we heard was “No tengo. Pero dos quadras a la esquina… “, means “I dont have, but two blocks down at the corner” you can find. We played this game for two hours. Two blocks from here they have. At the corner. Two blocks. Two blocks. We stupid and naive as we are walked all the area … we found out: If they do not know where something is that you ask for, they send you away for two blocks, but would not tell you that they don’t know. Knowing that, if ever told “Two blocks …” we asked the next person and have been successful ever since. Even we used it afterwards, saying “Two blocks from here …” when we have been asked some direction. Important though is to indicate the two blocks of you “don’t know”. The Bolivian politeness, a new face.

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Fueling in Bolivia. It’s quite a challenge to understand that prices all over the country are the same per liter and are 3.74 Bolivianos for locals and 8.84 Bolivianos for vehicles with foreign number plate. Means we pay 2.5 times more than they do. They argue that fuel is subventioned and foreigners are excluded from this. Nice, no? So if you fuel, the register you with you vehicle plate, passport number home adress, …. and need to fill in a lot of papers on their side; tax it differently to their authorities and have quite some effort with it. So the owner of a petrol station has all these efforts for one motorbike, sometimes one foreign customer per month or year and that’s why they do not sell fuel. It’s not that they do not want, but they mind the efforts. We did all this process once in La Paz, ever since we negotiated the price at the petrol station directly. Lowest was the national price (we have been happy, but realized the engines have been knocking, so they stretched it with water) and 6.6 Bolivianos in some remote place that I do not remember. So the guys earned a tip for themselves and we win some Bolivianos against the official price. So Bolivia showed the face of everybody is the same but all are different. 🙂

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Liran and I split up with Felipe and Silviana and had a excurse to the north of Chile and some off road that I will write about in the Chile chapter then. Coming back from Chile we crossed over the entire country via Oruro and Cochabamba to Santa Cruz de la Sierra. This place was modern, new and another Bolivia. We found all the western brands, starting with Burger King and Starbucks, Caterpillar, John Deere, … and Triumph. My motorcycle needed a service. So we met Eduardo, the owner. It was carnival season and he took us to the parade and the down down festival. They throw ink and water on each other. It takes a while to accomplish and to get armed, but then we participated, since as tourists many wanted to paint us … so we painted them. Over all we stayed 9 days and nights. We discovered “Menoites”, some Belgian, Dutch, German decent fellows, which live a live similar to the Amish in the USA. I hardly remember that I saw so many people with such blue eyes. They do not mix up and came from Canada to the Bolivian low lands because here they can live their traditions and believes without interference with the outside world. Woman that see you, look down on the floor, kids who look up to you have been exhorted not to look at us. Somehow I irritated them looking like them (tall, white, blond/grey with blue eyes) but completely different in style (shorts, flip-flops, t-shirt, speaking English with Liran). However I could talk with one fellow, about 65 years old. He spoke in a away I was used it to from all the guys I worked with on the Mercedes assembly line many years ago. Not a pure German but understandable, like a Polish, Romanian or “Schlesian” German. They basically produce the food for Bolivia and have a important role in that matter. So another face of Bolivia are the recent immigrants, like 2-3 generations ago.

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After the carnival season and the break in Santa Cruz we left for Sucre. The direct road to there was mainly gravel and a challenge. We underestimated the distance and ended up in a 2hrs ride in the night, which we typically try to avoid. We made it and also met Felipe and Silviana who have been back in Sucre for the reason of curing Silviana’s leg. They have been on the way from Uyuni to Aleto on a rainy muddy day and fell down at low low speed. Unfortunately they fell down, which can happen in the mud very easily, and she broke her left leg. After surgery and placing a metal plate she was ok again and the smile came back. They needed to rest a month and meanwhile are back on the road.

Sucre has a great historical center and it’s a pleasure to explore the little streets by food and discover little shops, restaurants, churches, markets, cafes and much much more. I had a haircut, a great hot chocolate, some awesome steaks (we ate two and confused the waiter with the order of a third one), … all at all short, only 2 days, but a pleasant stay.

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Next stop was Uyuni and the salt lake of the Salar de Uyuni. It was as spectacular as expected. Flat and white as you can see. IMPRESSIVE !!!
Unfortunately we couldn’t go on with the motorcycles, or better to say we avoided to go, because it was still to wet and the salt water could create more damage than the nice picture with the motorcycle on the salt flat could bring us. It was an amazing day on the Salar de Uyuni with a 4×4 vehicle. We also visited a cemetery of trains that was left over from the days when salt was mined on the Salar de Uyuni and is a must see when here. It’s an industrial monument preserved in a dry and salty spot for long long time. This place is touristically developed and other face from Bolivia.

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Leaving Uyuni we took the Lagoon Route, which supposed to be without asphalt or such for the next 3 days. Since we navigated wrong and ended up in a 3 days off-road part that took us where only view or no tourists go. Fuel was short at the end, but we made it. Supermarkets not available; only small shops with the most needed products such as coke, cigarettes, bread, butter, batteries and such things. Highlights have been the road itself. Crossing over a pass with 4960m totally dry and in the desert of nowhere accompanied with some smelly geyser’s ; handing on a little present from a friend at home in Regensburg to a kid in the middle of nowhere; the quietness of the desert and the colors of the blue sky, mountains and the sand. Leaving that off-road part after 3 days and hitting the asphalt, the road took us down to San Pedro de Atacama, a 35km pure downhill and 2400m of difference in height. The last face of Bolivia that I saw was the beauty of desert and the loneliness and quietness it offers.

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One time, we hit the border in the north of Chile/Bolivia. There we found only a sign. We have been running round that sign crossing the border with no documents checking and no registration. We laughed so much, and have been so stupid at the same time.

Accidently the area of San Pedro de Atacama is where the flood was happening in Chile just some days ago (mid March), and that caused major damage to the civilization in the region. But more about Chile in the Chile chapter. 😉

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So as a conclusion, Bolivia has been more than a positive surprise, with warm and friendly people, great hospitality and large variety of different climates and country sides.

In one sentence: The many different faces of Bolivia have been truly enriching for me.

Bolivia: La Paz, the great view from the north