You can eat a three course meal at street level in Peru for less than $2. You can eat at sidewalk level for less than $4. You can eat at tourist level for much more, the choice is yours. Entree, soup, main course, coffee and desert (pie) for $3.50. It works for me and that is just for lunch. A lunch meal like that can allow you to skip dinner.
The sun peered into the valley slit and put a bright shine on the new day. A few miles down the road I came into a small town. I hadnīt eaten since early afternoon so it was time for some food.
Fried eggs, bread and some tea matte con cocoa sounded good. It turned out to be a fried egg sandwich. That was a pleasant surprise. I was nicely settled into my breakfast when a Tour-Bus pulled up and disgorged its contents. Turns out everyone gets out here for a pee, a poke, a stretch and a bite to eat. This was a bus from Lima to Cuzco...20 hours...for about $25. Sounds like a good deal to me.
The third person into the restaurant was a middle aged lady. She scanned the empty tables, discarded them in a glance and settled in at mine. OK, with me lady! Whatīs on your mind? We chatted for the duration of the bus stop. Her sister joined us a few minutes later. What a pleasant start to the day. The bus tooted its horn, they hurried to gather up their goods and then decided they wanted a picture of the three of us beside the bike. The bus started to roll as we posed for the camera. Snap! Run! Goodbye! See you in Cusco...maybe.
Down the road the grain harvest was in progress. I rounded the corner to find the road covered with a two foot thick mass of maize, a heavy headed grain not unlike wheat but with a much larger head. I braked hard and swerved to the right to avoid what looked like a very slippery encounter.
Once passed I turned around and rode back to look at the operation. What the heck I figured. Why not help them out. I bounced across the grain stalks as the farmers waved and cheered in delight. I turned around again to talk to them. They responded in turn by offering to share a cup of 'chicha' with me. I had never had this weird, ancient, partly fermented Quechua drink before...and probably won't again. My stomach thought so too and rumbled in protest the rest of the day.
All day I worked the sides of the tires. These mountain roads in Peru provide some of the absolute best riding and scenery in the world. This was no exception. I poked along enjoying the sights, working the gears and never getting much beyond 3rd. Traffic was minimal even as I approached Cuzco. Then in the last 40 km I dropped onto a broad valley and the road straightened out allowing a quicker pace.
Cuzco has become a big city, burgeoning with tourists, peddlars, thieves, beggars, businesses and the like. I worked my way to the Plaza de Armas and then settled with my foot on the curb, to peruse my Lonely Planet, Peru book for a place to stay. I had hardly opened the book when a man charged across the wide road, waving at me. This is not uncommon as in a lot of these cities businesses have spotters who hang out around the zocalo looking for a business opportunity.
This was not the case. Mario was from Argentina and a fellow biker. After introducing himself he offered to take me to the place he was staying, only one block off of the zocalo and only $10 a night with secure parking. It was worth a look. Ten minutes later I was checked in and enjoying a matte tea con cocoa.
Cuzco, the ancient Inca capital, the Tahuantinsuyo, the Center of the Universe. It is now a city of balconies. After the Spanish destroyed most of the Inca architecture they built upon the stone foundations and erected their own buildings in a fashion they had become accustomed to.
The trouble with Cuzco is there are too many tourists. Tourists bring out the worst in people. The city is literally crawling with street urchins, beggars, peddlars and any other word that can be used to describe these predators. They detract from the whole experience as one cannot even enjoy a stroll without having to beat off a dozen or more of these urchins. A few adds to the experience...one for every tourist is distracting.
They are persistent beyond stupidity. You can get your shoes shined, get up and walk three steps and another shoeshine boy is hounding you for a shoe shine. Go figure!
My impressions of Cusco were not as favorable as the first time I visited.
It was the street urchins and the peddlars that probably made a difference. Plus, it was not Inti Rami so the festive spirit was without. I weighed it all carefully and decided against a return visit to Machu Picchu.
My first visit to Machu Picchu was one of awe and wonderment. "The Vertical World of Machu Picchu" was how I described it then. I did not want to tamper with that pristine memory. I did not want to temper my rememberances. I did not visit Machu Picchu.
I travelled into the Sacred Valley and covered it's entire length. I visited Pisac, that ancient Inca stronghold and Ollantaytambo, the fortress, which was probably not how the Incas conceived it, but rather, as yet another religious retreat.
The Sacred Valley...how appropriately named. About two thousand feet lower in elevation than Cusco it had nourished a Nation, and nurtured a culture. It had provided the fodder of expansionism.
The Inca Empire moved north and south, east and west from Cusco. Over the course of the next 150 years they would conquer and subdue all civilizations from Ecuador in the North to Chile in the South, from the Pacific in the West to the Amazon in the East.
They controlled their Empire carefully, monitoring everything made and sold, grown and harvested. The ancient Quipu was their abaccus...their record. They terraced the mountains and stored their food surpluses for times of shortage. Everyone had a job. Everyone had a purpose. Everyone was accountable.
I carried an illness with me from Cusco or perhaps it had been brewing prior to that...maybe the Chicha? I retired early to bed, in Ollantaytambo and shared the same spot the next day. Even though my hostess plied me with Matte de Cocoa and a special Celery tea, it did little to mitigate the war that raged within. I had a good bout of dirrahea going...not uncontrollable...but totally liquid. I had involuntarily contributed my supper and then my breakfast the following day. I had hardly the energy to move about. I knew I had to get off of this mountain.
The morning of the third day I saddled up and rode out, heading south for Puno. There was no easy way off of this mountain. The road to Puno climbed steadily all day moving me from the Sacred Valley at 9,400 feet to 13,500 feet at Lake Titicaca. Over the course of the next 450 km my condition worsened. I hadn't eaten in two days but couldn't face the prospect of food even though I knew I would soon stop from lack of nutrients.
I tried a tiny sandwich for supper, in Puno, and it stayed. I was still passing full liquids for my third day. North American drugs would not touch this thing...and for good reason. It was altitude related and not necessarily food related. I felt so bad I could hardly move. On the fourth day I made a move. I went to the pharmacy on the corner and got an Andean prescription. It was more like a Wonder Drug.
Exactly 12 hours after I took my first pill, I suddenly felt like the weight of the world had been removed from my shoulders. My head cleared and I felt alive once again. I passed my first dry gas minutes later. I was enjoying getting re-acquainted with my dual purpose orifice after such a long abstinence. Then suddenly it mis-fired...back to the drawing board.
They were re-tiling the hallway outside of my room, in Puno. The first day they laid two maybe three tiles. The next day maybe one or two more. They would be finished sometime. Then, there was a commotion outside my door...voices were raised, criticisms were passed. The following day the hallway was almost completed. The work was nicely executed, just like the Inca Chiefs the day Pizarro rode into town.
The Spaniards had beheaded a civilization. They cut it off at the knees. Without guidance and control the subjects lost their direction, lost their will to perform, lost their will to live. The terraces fell into disrepair, the fields and crops into ruin. The downward spiral continued for centuries...the Spanish plunder was complete... it was beyond gold and silver. They had destroyed a civilization.
Today the Quechua and the Aymara, the oldest of the ancient civilizations, are worse off than they were 500 years ago, before the conquest. Then, their lives had purpose, their bellies had food, their families had shelter and self respect. Today, they are foreigners, strangers in their own land. They eke out a living, living hand to mouth, their daily bread most often rather than not, just out of reach. They have reduced themselves to building trinkets for tourists, trying to guess their whimsical fancy. They make only pennies on each sale, their desperation masked by the gold and glitter of the haggling crowd, as the tourist whittles away at their meager profits in a supersaturated market. Goddam Spanish.
At Lake Titicaca the Yavari lay resting placidly in the cold, clear waters of this the worldīs highest and largest fresh water lake. Originally commissioned in 1862, she and her sister ship were built in Wales, shipped around the Horn to Arica, Chile (then part of Peru) and hauled over the Andes to Lake Titicaca, by llama pack train, in 2,766 loads. The whole process took over six (6) years to complete.
Originally conceived as a coal fired, steam boiler to drive her engines, no one quite realized there was little or no coal in this part of the world. If there was no coal there was tons of dried llama dung. However, the heat release from a ton of llama dung was hardly equivalent to a ton of coal and the volume required was very considerably more. The ship was cut in two and 60 feet added to her berth to accomodate the extra fuel capacity. Her beam was maintained at 6 meters or roughly 20 feet.
On her initial firing, in this high elevation, oxygen starved environment it took eight (8) hours of continuous stoking to build a head of 100 psig steam. In the early 1900's her aging boilers were replaced with a four cylinder marine, diesel engine with which she remains fitted on this day. Nearing restoration, the plans are for her to ply the waters of Lake Titicaca one more time, before the end of the decade.
While breakfasting at the hostal, I met two lovely ladies from Denmark. One of them had been living with the indigenious on an island in the lake. Hers was a voluntary program to teach them English and enrich her own life in the process.
"There is one thing I have been wondering about these past few days", I said.
"Do they bathe?"
Her friend piped up, "Yes, I have been wondering about that too."
"They wash their faces once or twice a week."
"There are more parts to the body than the face", I prodded her.
"Well, maybe once or twice a year", came the answer.
"They walk barefoot all the time," the older one said. "They donīt seem to feel the cold."
"My feet havenīt been warm since I arrived," I said. "Even at night, in bed with my socks on, they donīt warm up."
"And did you notice their toes," the older one continued.
"Not really," the younger one responded.
"They're huge, especially the big toe".
The younger one smiled. "Yes, you are right". "Since they are not encumbered with shoes, they use their toes all the time for gripping and climbing. That is why they are so well developed."
It was time to get off the mountain...but how? I asked around town. I had been told in Ilo that there was a paved road from Puno to the coast. The maps showed one leaving from Puno but nobody knew of it. I was perplexed. How could such an important development in their lives be such a secret. I asked taxi drivers, bus drivers, truck drivers and secretaries. A truck driver told me I had to go to the Bolivia border and then turn south...that was 200 km away. So much for the goddam maps. What good are they anyway if they just copy the same old shit and print a new date on the cover.
I resigned myself to the 200 km ride. If anyone should know it would be a truck driver. I stopped one more time, when halfway there and asked a bus driver whose bus said TACNA on the display.
"Does this bus go to Tacna?"
"Is the road paved?"
"I donīt know?"
"Are you the driver?"
"How can you not know?"
"I donīt know?"
"Which way do you go?"
"That way", pointing across the highway. It was a dirt road.
Fu_king idiot. One more to add to the Idiots I had met on this trip.
A crowd had gathered around the bike. A man stepped forward. "Where do you want to go?", he asked.
"Tacna," I said.
"Go to the the Bolivia border at Desaguadero. There is a paved road from there to Tacna. You can be there in five hours, maybe less." Finally, someone with conviction and an air or authority. "Is this a new road?" I asked. "No, it has been there for a few years". I thanked him kindly and was on my way.
At the Bolivian border, there was the road turning south to Tacna and well signed too. I fueled up and rode over the hill. The road went for a few miles to the west and then turned north. It doubled back almost half of the way to Puno, the way I had come, before it turned west again. There must be a good reason for this but I couldnīt see it. My NEW "Rough Guide" roadmap showed virtually no roads in this sector. Just a few "tracks" going to unknown places. In the 21st century what could possibly be so difficult as drawing an existing road onto a new map?"
At 15,600 feet it had cooled to 8C again. It would not improve until I started to descend. Descent was a long time coming. I stayed up at elevation for over an hour. Finally the road turned west and the spiralling, tortuous descent began. Like a coiled serpent, not Quetzelquotal the Feathered Serpent (that is further north in Mexico) the road wound its way off of the mountain.
I stopped to check my tires partway through the descent. They were hot. The edges soft and sticky to the touch; the rubber shredded from the carcass in strips. They had sacrificed their lives to save mine...they were doing what I had paid for. There was nothing beyond the edge but the valley floor a thousand feet below.
Before I left Lake Titicaca I had a run-in with the Federales. I had not encountered these people before...only the Nacionale Police.
I saw them parked at the south end of the small town as I entered from the north.
However, just before I got to them I spotted an old mission one block off of the main road. I turned towards it and stopped to investigate. Poking around and taking a few pictures consumed time...15, maybe 20 minutes. I was in no hurry.
Done with my work I could see that the road in front of the mission connected with the main highway so naturally I followed it out. They were waiting for me...the Federales. These are the drug police. I am sure my actions aroused their suspicions. After all, who would waste time looking at an old abandoned mission.
They pulled me over. Paperwork please! Come into the office...their interrogation room. Empty your pockets!
He made a move to open my jacket pocket. I pushed his hand away. I reached in and removed the contents and put them on the table. A couple of wrenches and some kleexex. Pretty harmless.
He pryed at the other pocket. I brushed his hand aside.
"Not before I put everything from the first pocket away", I said. I had played this game before. Empty everything at once and you only get half of it back. There were four of them and only one of me.
I emptied the second pocket. They had trouble with my change purse. I snapped it open to reveal the contents. "That is a ladies purse," he said.
"So what! it works for me". These guys were beginning to piss me off.
"What about inside your jacket?"
I revealed my passport case in which I carried a few Peruvian Soles and some paperwork.
They looked in my sunglass case which contained my glasses, my driver's license and a charge card.
Satisfied they let me go. A block away the Nationale Police were parked. They waved merrily to me as I went by, as was the norm.
Earlier that day I had passed the Nacionale Police as they ambled slowly down the road. They weren't breaking any speed limits but neither was I. I sped by. I had barely merged back into the lane when they turned the siren on full and flipped on their flashing lights. I'm sure the bike twitched a foot as a startled reaction to their game. I throttled up and watched them disappear in the mirror, as I gave them a big Salute.
Coming into Cusco, a few days earlier the Nacionale Police had caught me passing a bus on a mountain road, in a curve, with a double solid yellow line. I thought I had a ticket for sure, but they waved me on. Damn, double amarillo lines.
Riding that coiled serpent for the better part of a day could only bring back some fond memories of 1999 when I visited here last.
I had organized, planned and scheduled that trip much as I had done this one. I fetched two (2) unknowns off of the Internet and we met face to face for the first time in McAllen, Texas.
Like three (3) Misfits from Hell we headed south through the Americas, partying as we went.
I was young enough to keep up, Andres was dumb enough to try and Peter set the pace.
Our quest for that perfect bottle of rum took us to Ecuador where we found we could purchase a quart for $1.00. Thus we aptly earned the well deserved moniker "The Rum Riders." It took us a month to find the border so we could escape.
While roaring across Argentina one day, at 80 mph Peter heard a strange noise coming from his engine. "I must remember to ask Santa about that", he remarked to himself...he didn't.
With the starter firmly engaged to the flywheel he was grinding off precious teeth as he went. The heat generated within the starter melted the magnets off of the casing and turned the entire rotating mass in to a molten gel which solidified once it cooled. A new alloy was created that day called Copperminium which Phelps Dodge has since patented...TOO MUCH RUM. Peter still drinks...I don't.
We were like the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. The Father has returned to handshake the Andes, the Son is at home raising a family and the Ghost...well he is not Holy, we know that for sure. He lost his pecker somewhere in Argentina and is wandering about aimlessly trying to find it.
Peter had purchased an almost new R100GSPD for the trip. He fondly christened her the Virgin Queen. By the end of the trip she had been reduced to the Whore of Babylon. He still owns the Whore.
Somewhere in Central America, Andres decided he was going to cross back through two countries to try to find a woman who had given him a blow-job a few days back. He didn't know her name or the city she worked in but he was going back to find her...TOO MUCH RUM.
About every week or 10 days, Peter would go to the bank for more money. Returning with his cash in one hand and an ATM receipt in the other he would ask, "Santa, how are we doing on the budget?" "Spot on," I would reply. He never knew...TOO MUCH RUM.
While crossing the 16,500 ft pass at Huarez I was wretching from soroche, stomach cramps and the after effects of diarrhea. I lay on the road to gasp for a breath of fresh air in this cold, oxygen starved enviorment. A moment later Peter was nudging me with his boot..."Come on Santa, we've got work to do. Let's get rolling."
THOSE WERE THE DAYS MY FRIENDS...THOSE WERE THE DAYS!
As I came off of the mountain, the hot desert air rushed up to greet me. The afternoon chill was purged from my bones as the temperature climbed into the high 20s. I was home!
I returned to Chile the next day...to Arica, where I had been almost one month before. There was only one good reason to be here...to ride one more mountain pass before I put the Andes behind me, perhaps forever...the Paso Tambo Quemada. I would enter Bolivia via this pass.
This was a less spectacular pass than I had imagined. I had read much good about it, but I found it less appealing than some of the others. These are not up and over passes, but rather up and stay there passes. I clung to 15,400 ft for several hours. Gas, near the top was 900 CH pesos per liter...$2 per liter.
The Chilean and Bolivian border crossings were at this high, remote location. With minimal traffic I was processed through in record time. That was a good thing because I had decided to ride from Arica, Chile to La Paz, Bolivia in one day instead of two. The pass consumed far less of my time than I had imagined. It would be a 500 km day with two border crossings. I was stretching the limit.
I arrived in La Paz at sunset. I hate that. Darkness is bad, rush hour traffic is worse and in La Paz it is hell. In fact it was so bad I was able to dig out my book and find my hotel while waiting for something to happen.
La Paz is built in a giant bowl. The rim is 13,500 ft and the bottom of the bowl is about 11,800 ft. With one way in and no way out this place is worse than a zoo. I missed my turn and since the roads radiate like a spiders legs I was ready to give up hope of ever getting to my destination, but I had nowhere else to go. I turned back and stopped to confirm my location. To my surprise I was only 2 blocks from where I wanted to be. Ten minutes later, with the bike parked in the hotel lobby, I was checked in and ready to hit the streets.
There were seemingly a few good reasons to go to La Paz. However none of them balanced with the chaos that greeted me as I rolled off of the hill.
There are so many buses, mini buses, mico-buses and taxis in these Latin cities that they consume 99% of the road. El Alto, the city at the top of the bowl, was no exception. Six of the eight lanes were plugged with the 'load' and 'unload' activities of these public transport vehicles. The other two lanes were blocked with drivers trying to escape the chaos. I was somewhere in the other two lanes.
I had a strange feeling about me. Within the chaos, and rising above it, was a chanting sound. It had an eerie taste, like a crowd being encited to action. I wondered if the rioting and demonstrating was still going on. With the mass of humanity and buses about me I could not see what was going on. I edged forward. The sound encompassed me. What a strange, unforgettable feeling.
Later, the next day I discovered what it was. Where all of the buses gather to collect and disgorge their contents the ticket taker opens the sliding door and calls out to the people on the street, reciting the fare and the destination, trying to gather customers in this free-market system. Combine that with a thousand buses and a thousand chants and you get a cacaphony of sound that matches what I heard.
Every vehicle is a diesel...even the micro-buses. Their 1.1 liter engines producing a black smoke cloud equivalent to an eighteen wheeler. With 1.5 million people in the area and 1 million buses you can just imagine. The air is a black, murky, foul tasting mess. Down below in the bowl, where everything just settles in, it is even worse. If these diesels were tuned for high altitude operation they would smoke less, run more efficiently and cost less to operate. I guess it makes too much sense to happen.
I entered the bowl. The police at the toll gate waved me through. They knew that the five minutes it would take me to de-glove, find my wallet, pay, pocket my change and re-glove would create more chaos than the 25 cent toll was worth. I dropped into La Paz.
I had only a few good reasons to come to La Paz, all of which made sense before I got there...good food, good museums and a movie. I had been thinking about a good movie ever since I had been sick. I was not going to give up on that one. The rest be damned.
I satisfied my first need. I hadnīt eaten all day and even thought it took a while to find a good restaurant I settled into that. The next day I captured my museums and topped it off with "Memories of a Geisha". I found it quite enjoyable. They still maintain "old world" movie theatres down here. You get a huge screen, about 40-50 feet across and a nice lounge chair to relax in. Movies are cheap...about $3 and popcorn is 50 cents. Need I say more!
The first time I had ridden the Yungas Pass to Corioco, Peter and I had encountered the "dog gods". Dogs line the road up and over the pass expecting passers-by to contribute a portion of food to their well-being and in return receive their blessing for a safe voyage. We had thought this worship to be unique to this pass.
I was wrong. In all of the passes I had crossed this trip, the "dog gods" were in evidence. I had just never noticed them before. One must ask oneself, "how does this thing get started and how does it expand in perpetuity to all of the passes in Peru?" "Are they really gods?" "How do they communicate?" This is a most perplexing phenomenon.
Back on the altiplano I headed south and east for Cochabamba. The thin 13,500 ft air refused to climb above 12C. Wind chill was much lower. The air was clear and still, and I wore a smile as I moved on. I had a nice easy day ahead of me. I settled in for the ride.
As I slowed for a toll booth, I heard a sound I have come to hate and recognize instantly...that gunshot sound where a projectile entires your tire and creates an explosive noise as the carcass is pierced and the precious air begins to escape. Goddamit. This shit always happens at toll booths and check points.
I pulled over to have a look. A 7/16" x 3" long bolt had been driven into the tire, dead center. My heart sank. I didnīt even know if my plug would fill the hole. All I could do was try. It slipped it in, with only a few bubbles of air escaping as I re-inflated the tire. I had almost 400 km to go before my days end. I did not want to fix it again before then.
I rode all day. I had forgotten how lovely the pass from Oruro to Cochabamba was, rising to 15,400 feet at its peak, the temperature dropping below 9C. Finally I was over the top and into the verdant valley below. Cochabamba, the bread basket of Bolivia. The temperature soared to 27C.
In town, the back end squirmed as I accelerated away from a light. The tire was deflating. I made it to my hotel, just as it went flat. I didnīt even ask how much. I just checked in...I had made it...barely.
I had the hole patched for $1. The tire was now filled with Bolivian air. I should have done that before. With only one oxygen molecule instead of two, it is lighter, runs cooler, accelerates quicker and has higher rotational speeds.
I changed my oil in Cochabamba. It is a much more complicated procedure than one can imagine. First of all you have to find the "oil vendors". Everyone seemed to have a different idea of where I could find them. Finally, I found a Taxi Driver and said "Take me there." Once there you have to find the vendor that sells the oil you want. Then you have to find a place to change it. All in all it consumed the better part of an afternoon. But the price was right. Synthetic oil was $15/liter in Peru, $20/liter in Chile and $7/liter in Bolivia. This economy of price is consistent with other costs in Bolivia.
Food is very inexpensive. A filete mignon is about $4. And, do not kid yourself it is excellent. $1 for 1/2 liter of wine and then dessert and coffee. The total is less than $6. An ice cream cone is 50 cents, gas is down from a high of $1.60 per liter to $0.70, a six course breakfast with croissants, toast, juice, coffee, ham and eggs and fruit salad is $2. Life at the top of the food chain is just fine.
Cochabamba was nestled in a broad valley at 8500 ft. The climate was moderate; warm in the day and cool at night.
I had heard much about the "new" road to Santa Cruz. I had heard much about the "old" road to Santa Cruz. I decided to ride them both.
The new road was the tropical route. I had been hearing about it for years. It was on all of the maps, but we know that doesn't mean much.
I climbed to 13,500 ft. Even at this elevation the land was different than other high passes. This pass was fertile. The steep slopes were cultivated. There was also the remnants of an ancient forest that had not been totally harvested. This is now a protected area.
It was 165 km to Villa Tunari, a tropical village that was my destination. They said it would take 4 hours...it did!
Moving onward, I crested and started the long tortuous spiral downward. Sometimes the road was there...sometimes it wasn't...sometimes it hadn't been built yet...sometimes it was being built.
The lush greenery of the jungle rushed up to greet me. Flowers abounded. Tropical vegetation replaced the scrub grass and moss of the altiplano. The temperature soared and with it the humidity. I was surrounded by beauty and warmth and greenness and banana trees and fruit trees of every description.
These people lived in a different dimension, a different time from those on the other side of the pass. Life, in its tropical simplicity became so much easier. Food was abundant, shelter easy and clothing barely necessary.
I scrubbed off 12,000 ft over the course of the next two hours. Traffic was heavy and traffic was light. Traffic was backed up. At one point the road was reduced to one lane for construction. I coasted along at 2 mph as the road was downhill. The meandering course and speed dictated by the many semi-trailer trucks in front of me...the single lane too narrow to pass on.
On my left was a concrete paving machine, it's auger full of drying cement...it's hopper empty, awaiting the next load. But there was no mixer truck in sight. I never met one as I descended deeper into the valley. I passed the concrete plant, but still no trucks. I wondered silently how many paving machines had been frozen by the very product they were designed to place.
I didn't realize how lucky I had been until I was relaxing in the evening and reviewed the day's happenings. The traffic up the mountain had been stopped to allow for our passage. The line-up was miles long...mostly heavy trucks. They would wait for hours for us to pass and then grind their way uphill for hours at 2-3 mph...much too slow for a motorcycle. Had I been going in the opposite direction my clutch would have been fried...my engine cooked...my nerves shot. As it was all I had to contend with was an hour of slow coasting. The timing had been right. I did not have to wait.
At Villa Tunari a lovely room awaited me. But I had other things in mind. In the midst of a tropical garden I set up my tent. I couldn't wait to sleep under the stars in the fresh Amazon air, surrounded by a lushness that was foreign to me. The moon was full, the stars bright, the sky clear. What more could you ask for. I drifted off into a restful slumber.
I had it in mind to ride to the Missiones Region north and east of Santa Cruz the next day. I could not find the road when I came to the junction. I asked everyone I thought might know. The map showed a road, but the answer was consistent..."go to Santa Cruz and take the new road from there."
I went to Santa Cruz. It was against my wishes because I longed for the tropical, aloneness of the outdoors. I was not ready for another city just yet. It would have been better on my return from the Missiones...but it was not to be.
The chaos of the city drove me nuts. With blocked streets, streets going nowhere and one-ways to HELL I "do-looped" my way around the centro until my bike and I were fried. Finally I just took the first hotel that had secure parking and checked in. I was frazzled...my plans reversed...my perfect day altered.
Armed with only a small amount of information and the promise that they offered a unique spectacle I set off for the Missiones.
Long an isolated area to the NE of Santa Cruz, the Chiquitania, was once only accessible by a not too well maintained dirt road. The entire loop was over 700 km, usually taking the better part of a week to complete in the dry season; nearly impassible in the wet season.
Within the last two years the first 350 km from Santa Cruz to Conception had been paved. I took the easy route.
They were right! The way to this Chiquitania Region was through Santa Cruz. You had to go south to go north. For the sake of a 50 km connector road you had to go 100 km south and return 100 km north to arrive at the same latitude only a few km to the east.
In the absense of any real information I conjured up an image of a small country parish offering service to twenty or thirty parishoners. I could not have been more wrong.
The Jesuit Missionaries came from Bavaria, Bohemia and Switzerland, over the period 1720-1760. They incorporated German baroque elements into their designs. Once long forgotten, the Missiones now are considered one of Bolivia's and the world's greatest cultural treasures.
Conceived, designed and built on a grand scale, by Father Schmid, the Missione Complex was a complete unit. In the shape of a quadrangle occupying at least, a complete city block, the outer perimeter enveloped a spacious inner courtyard.
The Missione formed one side of the quadrangle; the other three the living quarters, convent, kitchen etc. The bell tower, always a separate structure was located either inside or outside of the compound. The Missione with a capacity for hundreds...maybe even a thousand...the walls whitewashed adobe and wood construction. The inner and outer walls highly decorated with painted frescoes, the roof a wooden beam structure supported by barley twist Ironwood columns, the trademark of the designer and builder, Father Schmid.
Once in disrepair they have been restored to their former glory and pressed back into service, not as Jesuit missions, for the Jesuits were expelled in 1767 by the Spanish Crown, but as a Catholic service. The restoration was initiated by Roman Catholic Archbishop, Antonio Eduardo Bösl, who mobilized the resources to finance and execute the work, in the early 1980's. His final place of resting is fittingly within the Missione at Conception (1925-2000).
The Jesuits had worked their way west from Brazil and Paraguay into this unknown corner of Bolivia. They organized and educated the Chiquitano and Guarayo Indians and changed their subsistence lifestyle into one of crop surpluses and plenty. They introduced crops and farming techniques unique to this part of the world and generated a sedentary lifestyle for these semi-nomadic people. They raised and trained a strong army to protect themselves and their way of life.
Eventually the Spanish and the Portugese became aware of this thriving civilization. In a simultaneous and uncoordinated effort, driven by their greed and lust for and gold and riches, they attacked from the east and the west. As efficient and effective as the Missione forces were, they were unable to defend against a sustained attack on both fronts. They fell.
The Portugese and Spanish found not gold and riches but only a coordinated, religious, farming community content in their daily lives, in this land of abundance.
With the guidance and knowledge once provided by the Jesuits, removed from their daily cycle, the learned technologies were soon forgotten and the Indians returned to their subsistence lifestyle.
Without the gold of conquest to sustain their greed, the Portugese and Spanish retreated from whence they came.
The society, so patiently nurtured by the Jesuits, fell into disrepair and decay. The Missions began to crumble and deteriorate.
....Reflections in a mud puddle....
I wish I had time in my life to understand all that I see...the mysteries, the passions, the motivations behind the work. Those things, those memories that lodge in my mind but remain unanswered, unexplained and not understood. So much has happened before me; so much will happen after me; so much will remain a mystery in my life and the next...
I wish I could help these people. I wish I could buy all of their handiwork. The haunting eyes penetrate beyond the sale, for behind them lurks the hunger and desperation of daily life, the struggle to survive, to exist in this hand to mouth world. I wish, I wish, I wish...
Nobody has change in these countries...not the big hotels, not the mercados, not the taxis...only the gas stations. I pay for dinner with a 100 Bolivano note ($14) and they cannot make change. I pay for my moto taxi with a 5 Bolivano coin (70 cents) and he cannot make change for a 37 cent ride. You are expected to have the exact change, but if you can't get change, how can you give exact change? It's a CATCH-A-22 of mega proportions.
There is not much to do in these little towns. You can make love, eat or go to Church...make Church, have love or go to eat...make eat, have Church or go to love. It is an endless cycle.
In this little town, everyone with a computer thinks the other guy has an internet connection. "Go see Fred on the corner." OK, I went to see Fred. Fred has 6 machines but no internet connection, only games. Fred says to see Mike 2 blocks away. Mike has no internet, but he is sure Fred has because Fred has 6 machines. I give up my quest and go to Church. I have already eaten and even though sex is appealing, Church is better for you.
I come out of Church after the 7:30 PM mass. There is a power outage and I cannot see my hand in front of my face. People at the shops sit behind lighted candles. A panic moves through my body. I cannot find my way home from here in total blackness. Even the traffic of moto taxis is almost non-existent in this absolute darkness. Finally, I tackle one and get a ride home.
Here in Conception, the little moto taxis (125cc Hondas) whisk you around town for 30 cents. Careening down the dirt streets littered with potholes, dodging pedestrians, dogs, moto taxis and the odd car, we move along in a state of near-out-of-control. My bulk on the rear seat, almost double that of the conductor puts me in control even though he holds the handlebars. By shifting my weight I can re-direct him at will, putting him in a state of confused panic as he struggles to regain control. Finally arriving at our destination he is more than happy to see me disembark and once again regain control of his craft.
Word must have passed around town about the gringo with the blue shirt. Soon no one would stop to pick me up. I go back to my room and change into a white T-shirt. Back on the street, I am soon picking up taxis with random abandon. The games continue.
Some of these little bikes have over 50,000 km on them and I am sure they have never been more than 10 km from the edge of town.
The asparagus is wonderful. The thick, meaty stalks offer no resistance to the bite and provide a flavour sensation without equal, never before experienced.
My girlfriend came by to greet me during supper. I met her yesterday. She is such a sweetheart...an absolute doll. She is ten, with all of the grace and dignity of a lady. She is the self-appointed hostess and stopped by to wish me "buen provecho." She saunters through the dining room, into the next room, out of sight. I pause to reflect on her passing. I wish I were ten...but only for an instant.
There is an Orchidaria in town at the Hotel Chiquitos. I go to visit. It was not the season, but enough of these delicate beauties were in evidence to arouse the senses...their frail and delicate beauty exceeded only by the nectar of the sweet aroma eminating from within. The visual memory of the beauty lingers, but it is the delicate and delicious, sensory memory of the scent that remains forever. The Nectar of the Gods...for it cannot be captured...it cannot be duplicated...it cannot be confined. It is nature's gift to the world. A world bent on a course of chaos and destruction, in man's quest for "The Cancer of the Moneda" so profoundly spoken by Carmen those many months before, in Santiago, at the beginning of the journey.
The Missiones circuit...
At Conception I lodged at the Hotel Etayo. I was their only guest. They welcomed me into their family as one of their own. I had planned to stay one day and ended up staying for three. We shared stories and traded lifestyles. Fernando had learned English in the United States...Ohio. We talked well into the evening. Born in 1950, he was the same age as me. He had moved to Conception to start a new life and to raise his family.
His young son, Matthew, became enamoured with my camera. Initially camera shy he became fascinated with the magic of the silver box. It had pictures of him, and more...it had pictures of macaws, motos, monos (monkeys), llamas, vicunas and many wonderful things he had not seen before.
But he still remained shy of me. I think it was the beard. When pressed as to whether I could be his friend, he was insistent. "No, I was too old to be his friend." He liked me, but I could not be his friend.
I left Conception and began backtracking to Santa Cruz. The day gradually cooled as I moved south to the city. A Surazo was blowing into town. I had hoped I could escape Santa Cruz without this experience but I guess not. The Surazo is a cold wind that blows into this area from the Argentinian Patagonia. The temperature dropped from the 30's C to the low teens...and with it came the rains.
We lined up at the one-way entrance to the "Train Track Bridge From Hell." It had been raining; the polished boards on either side of the tracks slickened to the consistency of ice.
I was in pole position...everyone behind me itching to pass the gringo on this narrow trestle. The slickened boards sometimes placed with a 2"-3" gap along their length...bigger gaps where they should have butted together...sometimes missing. They were a challenge when they were dry, never mind now.
I caught an edge and it threw me to the outside railing. I recovered only to hit a too large gap that grabbed the tire and tried to spin me sideways. Again, I somehow reovered and continued...the bridge too long to expect continued miracles as I worked my way along its 1km length.
More gaps; sideways; my foot shot out to kick the bike back upright. The train tracks in the middle gave me only a 4 ft margin to work with. Suddenly the bike felt ponderous, way too heavy, incapable of going the distance without a crash. The taxi driver on my tail, nudging me to my doom.
I accelerated out of his range. A board was missing. I narrowly averted disaster. Glancing upward, away from the track directly in front of me, I could see the end of the bridge. The criss-cross pattern of the bridge started to diverge instead of converge. It was a race against time. Could I make it before my luck ran out?
The boards became smoother...the gaps narrower and then I was at the end. But, I could not exit. I was on the right hand side of the tracks. The exit road was on the left hand side of the tracks. I could not cross the 6" high rail.
I bumped my front tire against it and it skidded along. Wet and slippery, it could not grip the rail to climb it. I tried again and almost fell. The impatient traffic stacked up behind me now. I moved off of the bridge and bounced along the ties. The situation did not change. I now only had a 3 ft verge before the rail bed dropped off into a deep ditch...the 3" ballast difficult to negotiate. I was being pushed to the outside...closer to the edge. I couldn't go back.
Ahead of me the tracks split creating another barrier. I cursed the rain, the tracks and the goddam taxi drivers. The only option I had was to ride down the steep, rain soaked, mud embankment hoping it was firm enough to support me. Once at the bottom I would have to turn around and pull a 1/2 Steve McQueen.
I looked around. That was my only option. The crowd lined up for the show.
The sticky, clayey mud balled up on my tires. I twisted the throttle and did a quick 180 turn as the back wheel spun in the mud. I paused 10 seconds to ponder the steep ramp in front of me. I could not see the tracks from here, but I knew where they were.
I had but one chance. If I spun out I was done. Too much speed and I would break something crossing the tracks. If I did not hit them perpendicular I would crash.
I twisted the throttle and released the clutch. A rooster tail of mud and rocks flew skyward behind me. I accelerated up the embankment and then "shut it down." The front wheel hit the rail hard enough to clear it. As the suspension compressed the rail hit the underside of the bike with a "clang." I jumped the second rail... clang...and then I was done. I merged into the lineup and accelerated the hell away from there. I didnīt bother to look back...my vision firmly fixed on the road ahead...the future and not the past.
It started to rain hard. I could see it coming as the sheets descended onto the highway just ahead. I did a "Right Turn Clyde" into a garage, to suit up. I was followed by a flock of chickens and a bicyclist. We joined the moto taxi already there. The owner watched patiently as his shop filled with non-paying customers.
I rode off minutes later as the burst dissipated, slowed to a gentle rain. I had better places in mind to spend my day.
The Surazo can hang around for days or weeks. There is no telling.
Saturday was a wet and miserable day, the temperature barely above 10C. A good day for a movie...The da Vinci Code. Interesting, perhaps a little melodramatic, but a good distraction.
Sunday dawned overcast and cold, but no rain. I made a break for it. I knew that somewhere to the west the Surazo would run out of gas and blue skies would return.
I headed west on El Camino Viejo. I had heard much about this highway, mostly bad. Could it be true? My friends in Conception warned me it was a dangerous highway. I thought of robbers, guns and knives. They thought of land slides, wash outs and unpaved sections. I went to find out.
The first half was incredible...a road and a river sharing a narrow, deep canyon. The pavement was flawless and dry. The air cool. My destination was Samiapata, normally a weekend tropical retreat area for the Santa Cruzianos. But, on this weekend I had the place to myself. Of course there were a few obstacles...
Near Samiapata was the pre-Inca ruin named El Fuerte by the Spanish since they thought it was used as a defensive site. It was most likely a religious ceremonial site, carved into the top of a mountain. Without the benefit of mind altering drugs to enter the induced hallucinagenic state enjoyed by von Daniken, I failed to encounter any extra-terrestials or their craft.
Beyond Samiapata the road began to leave the valley and climb the pass. As the ascent began, the pavement ceased. It turns out the "Old Highway" has never been finished either. This section which lasted for the duration of the ascent and the descent, a distance of about 100 km, was finished in the brain rattling, mind numbing, suspension breaking roughest of all finishes...pit run.
At 10,000 feet the temperature plummetted to 9C and I had entered the zone of the neblina (the fog). Visibility was reduced to a few feet and the inspiring views that should have greeted me disappeared into the mist. Villages abounded in this high altitude region and in my zero visibility state I could only wonder why anyone would live in this godforsaken place. As I crested and moved down the other side, I moved beyond the fog. Then I could soon see why. The mountains had been farmed to their peaks. The fertile, steep slopes cleared and cropped much as they were in Ecuador and Central America. The concept of terracing not used...the near vertical slopes simply cropped and harvested as nature had built them.
Near the bottom of the descent, the road became maintained gravel with intermittent pavement proving that at one time this side had been paved. I watched my GPS for my turnoff but it was deceptive. All along the route the GPS had tracked the road to the pixel. Now that I really need it, it was an inch off of the mark. A tiny sign not much larger than a knee-cap alerted me to my intersection. But it just didn't make sense. I spotted a service station and gased up. This inconspicuous little town was Izacara, the thriving truck stop and junction that I had been looking for. No wonder I didn't recognize it...it was a one horse town...but it was still the primary junction to Sucre, the proclaimed most beautiful city in all of Bolivia. It was hard to tell from where I was standing.
I made the turn. A cobblestone road greeted me. A dual carriageway extending into the distance. Polished smooth by centuries of traffic, there is a slickness in a cobblestone road like no other. Dry it is doable, but wet it is unforgiving. Today was a dry day.
This cobblestone road would lead me through hills and valleys, over mountains and back down again. It would last for 100 km, all the way to Aiquile. The surface was flawless...as good as cobblestone can be. The stones mostly hand sized. The manhours...the man years required to build it were incalculable.
I hate cobblestone roads. They are only a few steps better than pitrun. Idling along in 3rd gear was a reasonable speed...a mere 60 km/hr. I was glad when it came to an end at Aiquile. It was replaced by what I call a fast gravel road. I skimmed along a 80 kmph. A dust cloud of epic proportions followed me. They said it would take me four hours to go from Aiquile to Sucre. I was there in less than two.
Out in the middle of nowhere I encountered a toll booth. On this dusty, miserable road I could not imagine they would be charging a toll. I argued with the money changer that motorcycles were free in Bolivia. He disagreed. Reluctantly I paid the toll...50 cents. Hey, you have to try. It is part of the game.
Around the corner and across the bridge I had my answer. As I exited the bridge I came across a brand new concrete highway leading to Sucre. What a pleasant surprise. It wound its way along the broad river, up the valley and over the mountains. What an incredible ride made all the better by a superb roadway. Well worth the 50 cents any day.
In fact the entire ride from Santa Cruz to Sucre will remain one of my all time favorites, simply because of the variety of road surfaces and total transitional environment. I had moved from tropical, to tropical transitional, to montane, to desert and on to altiplano where Sucre was situated...back at 9,000 ft.
Entry to Sucre from this direction, takes you right past the limestone mine where they quarried the rock for cement. Embedded in the upthrust plate was a massive accumulation of dinosaur tracks...over 5,000 in total. I stopped for a visit. They have named the site Cal Orcko.
Now, located in an almost vertical position, due to the upthrust, originally the tracks were on a flat mud plain.
My lovely guide was most accomodating and provided a personal tour.
I had been living high at the top of the world...literally. The cost be damned. At 13,200 feet ASL, Potosi was simply the highest city in the world. At one time it carried two other accolades...the biggest city in the world and the richest. Bigger than Paris or Rome or any other...richer than all others. That was back in the Colonial era, in the mid 1500s. Much has changed since then.
The reason for the affluence and the growth was quite simply a single, solitary commodity...SILVER. An entire mountain of silver. Cerro Rico. The single, largest accumulation of silver anywhere. Other places tried to emulate Potosi when they made a rich strike; for instance, San Luis Potosi in Mexico, named after its namesake Potosi, Bolivia. They all paled by comparison. There simply was only one CERRO RICO.
The Spaniards could not get enough silver. They went crazy for the metal. They would stop at nothing to get it out of the mountain. With veins over a meter thick it was relatively easy to get out. But it took manual labour and lots of it.
They worked the Indians to death...and when they died they moved more in. Soon there were not enough Indians left to fill the ranks of the dead. They imported African slaves. The slaves however did not fare well in the high, cold altiplano and died even faster than the indios.
To be assigned to the mines was a death sentence. A single term was four months without returning to the surface...without seeing the light of day... forever breathing noxious gases and dust...living, eating and sleeping in the mines. In the upper levels the temperature often exceeded 45 C. If you survived, you were given a brief rest and then returned for a second term. Few survived to return a third time.
The attrition rates were incredible. Over the 280 year period from 1545 to 1825 it has been estimated that over 8 million lives were given to the Spanish lust for the Silver...the ultimate Cancer de la Moneda. There is no way to know the exact number, but what is known is that the death rates were so high the dead were never returned to the surface. They were simply piled into chutes and shafts and covered over with mining debris.
Today Cerro Rico still looms over the city as a silent reminder to the lusty days of past. It is still worked but on a small scale. For the most part it is mined out, but miners are a unique breed and cannot believe that there is no silver left. The quest continues. The mountain is so heavily mined with tunnels and shafts that it's height has subsided by 300 meters.
With wealth comes prosperity and waste. Over eighty (80) churches and cathedrals were built in Potosi. The rich sent their Parisienne silks back to Paris for cleaning. Not really a simply task. They were bundled up and trundled over the Andes on llama pack train to Arica, Chile. Then by boat, north to the Isthmus of Panama. By pack train again they were transported across to the Caribbean. Once again loaded onboard ships where they entered the final phase of the journey to France.
After cleaning the shipping procedure was repeated in reverse. The whole process probably took a year to complete. One has to wonder if it was really worth it. The fashions would have changed...the fleeting fancies of the rich and whimsical altered.
Today with the silver boom over, Potosi is struggling to survive. It is a mere shadow of its former self. Most of its churches long since stripped of their gold and silver, melted down for hard currency; many of its buildings stand in disrepair.
Slowly the town is being rebuilt. Tourism is one mechanism, but it is a long battle. Potosi is a long ways off the tourist track. You have to want to go to Potosi to get here. It is on the way to nowhere.
There is no change in this town. I have eaten a fine dinner but they cannot make change for a 100 Boliviano note ($14). I give them the last of my change, which I have been hoarding, so I can pay the exact amount. Now I cannot do anything because all I have is a 100 note. I go to the corner kiosk and buy a chocolate bar to break the bill. The lady wants the sale but hesitates. I buy three chocolate bars to make it worth her while...
I had criss-crossed Bolivia like a politician campaigning for office. From Paso Tambo Quemada to La Paz, south to Cochabamba, east across the Chapare and the Beni via El Camino Nuevo to Santa Cruz, north and east into the Missiones district, back west on El Camino Viejo and south to Sucre, further south to Potosi and Tarija. Then east again to Villamonte and finally south to Yacuiba where I plan to make my exit to Argentina.
What a grand country. What a country of contrast and change...from high, arid altiplano to the lush tropical Amazon, the middle agricultural zone and finally the low and arid desert zone of the Chaco, with everything imaginable in between.
Bolivia was once twice the size it is today. It's numerous wars with its neighbours have been wars of attrition. They lost land to Brazil in the rubber rich area of the Acre. They lost their east coast access via the River Paraguay to Paraguay, most recently in 1932. They lost their Pacific Coast access to Chile in 1884 in the War of the Pacific. And finally, they lost land to Peru in the lower Amazon basin in 1909.
Political instability has not been kind to Bolivia. They have endured 192 changes of government in 178 years as a Republic. Social reform lags, but the people endure. They are the most resilient, most friendly, most helpful of all the countries I have visited.
Twice, in different cities (Sucre and most recently Potosi) I have pulled up to the curb and opened my Travel Guide to the city map to try to determine where I was relative to where I wanted to go. My book was barely open when a lady came up and asked where I wanted to go. She set me straight in two minutes flat. This has never happened to me anywhere, in any country before...only BOLIVIA. Simply incredible!
The road to the Chaco, from Potosi, was through Tarija. It was a long eight hour drive over gravel roads to get here. Most of the road was being prepared for paving, with many detours; hence the extra time to cover the 380 kms.
The country changed before my eyes, from high altiplano at 14,000 ft to middle altiplano at 10,000 ft and then a lovely red valley at 8,000 ft. From there I climbed back up to 10,000 ft ever so gently. If I hadn't check the GPS I would not have known. I was expecting my destination any time now but my GPS said another 38 kms. I thought I would just drop off of the altiplano down to Tarija but no, that was not the case. There was a mountain between me and the city.
The steep ascent had but a few switchbacks as I climbed up to 12,700 feet. A totally different environment greeted me as I crested the mountain. The descent too was a different story. The spiralling descent into Tarija at 6,200 ft. was one I had never seen before. Hundreds of tight switchbacks covered in deep, floury powder, the road barely wide enough for a single vehicle...the corners almost too tight for a bus to negotiate. The temperature warmed with every turn until it was finally 20C when I reached the bottom.
Tarija, an isolated oasis of tranquility. What a lovely, delightful town. It is disconnected from the rest of Bolivia and I am told because of its proximity to Argentina its citizens feel a stronger affiliation for that country and lifestyle than that of Bolivia. The rest of Bolivia seems to share that sentiment too. I think when the road is finally completed all of that will change as Bolivia discovers the gem they have forgotten.
I was quite surprised to find that some of the police here ride the K100RT Police Model. The officer told me they have ten of these bikes in this metropolis of 132,000 people. There cannot be more than 100 miles of paved roads in and around Tarija and yet this model had 118,000 kms showing on the odometer. You have to wonder where he went. There is a flurry of Japanese 250 cc Police Models also. This country just never ceases to amaze me.
Tarija...the only city in Bolivia that I have visited that has normal, legible street signs. What a pleasant surprise to be able to navigate about town with confidence.
For many years the world has seemingly thought that there were no dinosaurs in South America. The tracks near Sucre should have proved different. The museum in Tarija surely will dispel any such notions...dinosaurs, mammoths and giant armadillos over six (6) feet in length, just to name a few. Many more remain to be discovered.
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