(10) Bolivia: The Road to Villamontes
The road east from Tarija to Villamontes was total tierra...ripio...gravel...dirt. You get the picture. 300 kms of slow and twisty mountain roads with corner upon corner upon corner as the road moved up one mountain and down the next. I must have crossed twenty ranges with a dozen or more river crossings and one mudpuddle. I had expected a traverse down a valley but it was not to be.
They said it would take eight hours...it did. Three hours to do the first 100 kms told me I would have no time for lunch. It would be a double "Snickers" day. I had provisioned myself well.
I pulled into the service station to top-up. They had no gasoline, only diesel. I had anticipated this and had stuffed my tank in Tarija before leaving. Gas was not going to be an issue. At the speeds I was travelling I was getting 75 mpg. My total distance should not consume more than 1/2 tank, but I like to be on the safe side. I motored on...180 more kms to go.
I was moving off of the mountain...down into the tropical zone. I entered a hairpin corner. I heard the bus coming, but it was too late. I was already into the corner. I had just passed the turn-out lane for passing, on this one lane road. We met nose to nose. The bus going uphill, me going down.
He was in the center to the road. I was in the right track. He motioned me to move over so he could pass. I looked at the 'V-Notch' ditch that greeted me. The soft, wet clay would suck me in and leave me there with no way to get out. I shook my head and motioned to him to back up. He pointed to the ditch. I pointed to him to reverse. We glared at each other through our respective windshields. He gunned his engine. I motioned for him to back up. All I needed was three feet so I could turn around and return to the passing lane.
For minutes we stared each other down. I was not going into the ditch for the asshole. All he had to do was release the brake and roll back a few feet. Finally he did just that. I spun around and returned uphill to the turn-out. He crawled by in a cloud of black diesel smoke.
I came through a one mule town. It was 4PM. The exit road was blocked. I could not believe it. The gate keeper told me there was construction ahead and the road would not open until 7PM...after dark. I still had almost 100 kms to go. I could not ride these roads in the dark.
A truck driver came up and talked to the gate keeper. He agreed with me. I should be let through. A bike can probably get through the construction he said. In less than five minutes I was mobile again.
They were doing a fine job on the upgrade. My expectations rose as I shifted into third gear for the first time in the day. My GPS counted down the kilometers. I was expectant about my fresh fish dinner in the shadow of the gorge which was the terminus of the road before it joined the pavement. A pleasant resort would await me there too.
It was not to be be. I came into the active construction zone. They had blasted the walls off of the side of the cut. Twenty feet of debris blocked the road. There would be no passage...not before 7PM.
I dismounted to review the situation. A truck driver came over to talk to me. "Where are you going?" he asked. "Villamontes and Yacuiba" I replied. He intoned that to mean I was passing directly through to Yacuiba. He did not know about the fish dinner, the resort, the relaxation, the cold beer and the naked women. "Less than a km back there is a detour," he said. It is a good road. You won't have to wait. I looked at my GPS. Yes the road was there. It looked like it bypassed the construction and moved on to Villamontes. I thanked him, spun around and headed out.
The road headed south. I wanted to go east. There was an intersection about 15 kms to the south, that turned around, headed north and then east to Villamontes. The GPS tracked the road to the pixel. I arrived at the intersection but it was not there. I rode further south and then turned back thinking I had missed it. It simply was not there. I tracked the road I was on. It went south. It went south to Yacuiba, on the Argentine border. I had no option. There would be no gorge and no fish tonight.
It was almost 5PM now. This road to Yacuiba was over 100 kms long. I doubted if I could make it before dark. I picked up the pace...3rd gear and 4th when I could. I rode like a desert racer, skidding around corners. River crossing after river crossing greeted me. Finally I came to an intersection which would take me directly to the pavement. I confirmed it with the "street watchers" in the small town. "Yes," they said, "it is not far."
I sped off. I had about 50 kms to go to the pavement. I might just make it before dark. 50 kms of pavement would be OK in the dark, but not 50 kms dirt and mud.
10 kms down the road my spirits fell. The road was blocked for construction. It would not open until 7PM. I talked with the gate keeper. "I cannot ride this in the dark" I said. "It is not safe." The lady in the kiosk agreed. It was 5:30 PM. Dusk was falling.
He phoned ahead to the construction zone. "You have to wait", he said, "until at least 6PM". I counted down the minutes...they seemed like hours. Would I get stopped ahead if they let me though early. I had no choice. I had to try it. At 6:10 he let me through.
This was rough construction. It was getting dark. My low beam had shaken itself to death sometime during this day or the day before. I only had high beam which was too high for this kind of driving. I moved on. I wended my way through construction vehicles. The road was passable...at least so far. Dusk blended into night. My GPS showed 20 kms to pavement but with this tortuous terrain you had to double that number...it was 40 kms.
I was in first and second gear again, dodging rocks, ruts, roots and debris as I crossed yet another mountain range. Some sections were soaked from underground springs, the dirty clayey material like grease...sideways...my foot kicked out and righted the bike...a save. Deep gravel a foot thick, not yet spread. I ploughed into that with rocks and dirt flying as I did a tank slapper...another save. A cliff wall on one side...a drop-off on the other.
I cursed these people. How could they close the main road and the detour too. What were they thinking?
Then I could see traffic moving perpendicular to my direction of travel. It was the pavement. I moved on, dodging bicyclists moving out of the dark, riding blind in this near black environment. Just what I need...a moving obstacle. Suddenly I was at the pavement. I turned south to Yacuiba.
100 meters down the pavement the road was blocked. It was a police drug check. More delays. "Where do you come from?". "Tarija". "Where are you going?". "Yacuiba". The standard grill. If he decided to search the bike it would cost me another half hour. I was in no mood for this. I volunteered only what he asked, no more. The bike was ticking over impatiently...waiting to go. I never stop the engine. It is my signal to them that I am busy. I have no time for their games. It is time to go. He stared at me. I stared back. It was a Bolivian stand-off. I was tired. I was late. It was time to go. The seconds seemed like minutes. The minutes like hours. He turned away from me; in profile; watching me out of the corner of his eye. I waited. Finally he motioned me on.
Yacuiba was still half an hour away. My high beam was a constant annoyance to the oncoming traffic. I flicked on my low beam and drove in darkness to show them my predicament. They were not amused.
Finally I was there. I was in Yacuiba, but it was a town with no end...no distinguishing features...no street signs...no directions...just mile after mile of houses. Every few blocks I asked for directions to the Centro. "Further ahead" came the reply. Finally, after my 10th try, the lady said turn left here and go three blocks. I was close.
The first hotel was a new, deluxe hotel. I took it. It was a waste of money but what the hell...it had a hot shower and a bed. The full American breakfast which was included in the fare turned out to be a Continental...bastards, they cheated me out a a lousy egg and a piece of toast...25 cents worth.
The steak dinner down the street, however, was not a disappointment. My two Snickers lunch had long since disappeared into oblivion. I can say I have never had a steak like that anywhere. In these Latin countries it is common to serve fish with the head and tail attached. In this steak, the only thing missing from the cow was the head and tail. The rest of it was there, on my plate. As thick as a Black Forest cake and just as tender, it was strictly a meat and potatoes meal. It disappeared. It was $5.
Posted by Robert Bielesch at June 04, 2006 11:44 PM GMT