Why is it that you can spend ages choosing a good spot to get "that picture". The one that shows what a rufty tufty overland adventuring biker you are. Some nice gravel, rutted road, rocks and plenty of colour.
And then a little old lady comes round the corner on her scooter.
Shortly after we left Tarija the tarmac ended, just in time for the climb over the highest mountains of the day. The next 40kms of dusty gravel took us over a 3800m pass on twisty ripio. This is a main highway, Ruta 1.
We took care to wait at any bends when we saw any trucks or buses coming as they wanted as much of our side of the track as we wanted of theirs. The dust clouds they produced also reduced visibility to nil.
As height was gained, some small black birds we had spotted from a distance became big black birds. Condors circled overhead. And then I managed to scratch another itch. We rose above condor level and were able to look down on them for a change.
By the time we reached Potosi, just under 4000m, Jean's headache she had been suffering since the previous days high pass was worse.
It wasn't until the next morning that the altitude sickness (soroche) hit me.
No problem, straight on to the local cure, Mate de Coca. A herb infusion made with coca leaves. We both felt much more cheerful after our "tea".
We hung around Potosi to see if we would become more adjusted, but headaches stayed along with nausea.
As we could not spend all day drinking coca we went on a drug hunt.
First of all we tracked down the other local popular cure and were really proud that Jean managed to ask for the treatment for soroche and was understood by the pharmacist. Until on the way out I noticed the large sign saying that was the main thing they sold here. 2 Gringos enter, it doesn't matter what they say, just get the soroche pills out.
Back at the Hostel we did a bit of internet research and discovered that all the pills contained were aspirin, something else we'd never heard of, and caffeine. I started taking them anyway.
Jean then came across some research about Ibuprofen being successfully used to alleviate the effects of mild altitude sickness. Off we went back to Pharmacy row, buying up their stocks of 200mg and 400mg tablets. They don't sell them in packets here, just break open boxes and dole them out in ones and twos.
I felt guilty as I walked out of each shop, sure that everyone was watching me stuffing them in my jacket. The 400mg ones were massive, they looked more like suppositories.
We are now taking a cocktail of drugs:- aspirin, Ibuprofen, coca tea, Jean's migraine pills. All along with our daily dose of Malarone (anti-malarial). We are not sure this is the right country to have so many drugs rattling around the panniers.
After a good nights sleep, and a fresh dose of Mate de Coca, I was ready to ride the bike and hit the road once more.
While sitting out the altitude sickness in Potosi we mulled over what to do and where to go next.
Which was a bit daft really, as we both knew where we wanted to go. The Salar De Uyuni.
Nearly 2 years ago we visited it in the wet season and were mesmerised by its beauty, surrealism, and tranquility.
Some people say you should not go back to a place as it will spoil memories. Well, those people are wrong.
But the wet season was now just starting; if heavy rains fall on the mountains Lago Poopo overflows and fills the Salar. We could take the chance and see if it was still dry. But that depended on the road.
Back then, February 2011, the road between Potosi and Uyuni still had 60 kms of ripio, sand and mud (mainly on the steep hilly bits), neither of us fancied riding that 2 up.
But Bolivia has a great governmental road website, and there was an announcement on it that the fully tarmaced road had been inaugurated in August 2012.
How things have changed between then and now.
Back then, while riding the rough bits, Jean saw very little of the mountains and gorges that lined the route between the two towns.
Now she could sit behind me and soak it all in. And I could enjoy some great riding. The road was so good I wanted to go home and get my XJR1300.
Back then we rode through a small gorge below the road works.
Now we rode over it in a few seconds; the small lush gorge is bypassed and unseen by people.
Back then we had to ride across a sandy plain, with llama crossing signs.
Now it is all tarmac. But they have a fresh sign.
Back then we rode 22kms up the mountainside through mud.
Now Jean has nothing but praise for the road builders.
Back then the Salar was wet.
Now it is dry.
And I still can't get Jean to line up with the mountains properly.
Back then we took a 1 day tour, 7 people crammed in a Land Cruiser.
Now we took a 3 day tour, 6 people crammed in a Land Cruiser. We shared it with an Italian who spoke more Spanish than English and 3 Bolivians. So, along with the driver/guide/chef we had to bring our poor Spanish forward.
We stayed in a Salt Hotel, visited lagoons, geysers, rock formations and mountains.
Sometimes it is worth going back, and this time it definitely was.
The fuel can (OK, orange juice container) has finally been used.
Not because we are short of fuel, nor because there are no gas stations.
Quite the opposite, there are loads of gas stations here in Oruro, but no one will sell us any petrol.
This is not a racist thing, it is because the Bolivian government subsidise the price of fuel. Country wide a litre of petrol is 3.74 Bs (33p/0.54USD). 2 years ago they passed a law that all foreign vehicles would pay the full rate of 9.25Bs (83p/1.33USD), with the extra money collected going back to the government. However this has involved a lot of paperwork at the gas stations with 2 receipts needed (one for the listed rate and one for the difference), with the vehicle details and my passport number.
In the nationalised gas stations this is not an issue as they have all the paper work. It just irritates all the drivers in the queue behind. In the rest it has been pot luck if they will serve us, and what they will charge.
Some have just added a bit to the bill after asking "Sin facture?" (no receipt) and pocketing the extra themselves.
Others have charged us the full 9.25 and failed to give the receipt. (so pocketing a large amount). If I didn't like the attendant I sat and waited until the paperwork was done, so all the money had to go where it should.
The further north we have come, and closer to La Paz, the bigger the problem has become. Culminating to the farce we have faced here.
None of the stations entering town would serve us, always refusing with a smile and saying they did not have the paper work. Eventually I decided to empty the emergency fuel into the bike and then walk with the empty 'fuel can' to the nearest gas station, once we had found it. We asked the Tourist Information office where we could buy some and the best they could come up with was "ask a taxi driver".
Eventually we found a gas station on the north of town, walked in with the 'fuel can' and asked to have to have it filled because "our bike was empty". The attendant took all our passport details, filled the container (5l) and then charged us the local rate. No problem.
The moral of the story is to park out of sight of the attendants and walk up with the container, about 3 times.
Now we had enough fuel to carry on. Hopefully the bike will start tomorrow, it would appear the left carburetor is leaking into the air-box. I'd rather be stuck in a nicer place than Oruro.
The next day we returned to the same gas station on the bike as we left the city, after finally getting it to start..
The attendant was unable to serve us as he could not fill a foreign bike.I asked him if he would fill the "fuel can" again instead. This he was happy to do, once more at the local rate.
40 kms down the road to Cochabamba, at the crossroads with the La Paz road, we stopped at another gas station next to a military checkpoint. The attendant had no problem selling us any fuel for the bike, he just openly told us that it would be 6bs/litre. A small profit for himself.
The law would appear to have created a black market in fuel.
While we were having dinner with our friend Jorges back in Tarija, we talked about football as well as bikes.
I was interested to know how good Bolivian football was and how their leagues compared to the the rest of South American and the world.
Jorge explained the size of the leagues and how the team names did not always reflect the city. For example "The Strongest" is a team from La Paz and "Universitario" is from Sucre.
He explained that just 2 teams won most of the titles and trophies, had most of the support and the money. All the rest were small and the lower league was a poor standard.
"Ah", I said , "just like Scotland".
At this his face dropped in shock, "No, no, not as bad as that. How can you compare our football to Scottish? It is an insult."
So, Brazil at the top, Scotland at the bottom.
While on a football theme we also went to a match in Sucre, Univeritario (Sucre) were playing San Jose (Oruro). San Jose needed to win to keep up their challenge on The Strongest.
Considering it was a full days journey over 3 mountain passes from Oruro to Sucre we were impressed by the away support.
Sitting in the stands we had a good view of any approaching clouds and noted the difference from back home. At home they appear on the horizon and move nearer. Up here they rise slowly over the surrounding mountains, gaining in size, like a foam over the side of the bath. Note the whole of that side of the ground was nearly empty. Everyone, apart from the away supporters who had to go there, crammed themselves into the shady side without the evening sun glaring in their eyes.
The game ended 0 - 0, we had 2 sendings off. One was a San Jose official and the other the San Jose reserve keeper while he was warming up.
The Strongest won the league by default. We had another cheap afternoons entertainment.
We often stop at small roadside eateries and have the "guess what it is" soup.
The soups are all healthy stock based with potatoes, vegetables and quinoa. Usually with a piece of chicken or meat in it.
I was a bit disconcerted when I had what appeared to be a babies hand.
But on closer inspection it was a chicken foot.
While I am on a random drivel, this is an example of a Bolivian traffic cone, in a major city.
All the wings seem to have fallen off, maybe we should start praying....
We had no intention of going into La Paz, our plan had been to get straight through the traffic hell of El Alto as quickly as possible and find somewhere on the other side. But I was sidetracked by the thought of a nice cosy little hotel in the valley to the south of La Paz.
The day started well as we left Cochabamba; we found a gas station that had fuel, was willing to sell it to us, and only charged us the local rate. The ride back up over the mountains was in clear dry conditions allowing me to see some of the views as we wound our way back up to 4500m and across a series of ridges. At times the road was all there was, just long drops over both edges, the mangled crash barriers showing signs of being used effectively.
Nearing El Alto, a city that is perched on the rim of the canyon that La Paz sits in, the rain started and the road surface deteriorated due to an ongoing 'road improvement' scheme. The outskirts of El Alto were awash with mud, thick red mud and large pools of water. The rain had gone off and the sun returned to blaze down as we searched for the corect route into the valley.
Going through El Alto is the only way to get past La Paz and it is rammed with cars, trucks, buses, taxis and collectivos (small people carriers that stop frequently) all crawling, stopping and blocking the roads. The bike was overheating and I was tired after 6 hours riding, so I overruled Jean on staying up on the level and carrying on through. We managed to get some directions to the town of Mallasa, with no signs we had missed a turnoff 5k earlier, and headed in towards the rim.
Lost in some back streets the bike burped once and died. I turned to look at Jean, she was not amused. El Alto is not the most salubrious place and we were not in a better part of it. After failing to start the bike we grabbed the tools and went for a plug clean (not an easy job as part of the fairing needs to be taken off). This did the trick, and gave me time to spot some police and gather more directions.
Perfect, they pointed us in the right direction and the road dropped over the edge. El Alto finished, and the road plunged down with La Paz spread out up and down the sides of the deep gorge. The suddenness of the view is like peering over the rim of the Grand Canyon. All we needed to do now was to continue down and south at any forks in the road. But right at the bottom we got it wrong and we found ourselves heading north into the city, uphill on a road with no turn offs.
I was not a happy bunny, it was rush hour. Here comes La Paz after all then.
With some fancy maneuvering we headed back down and south, at every opportunity I checked the route with police, who then sometimes asked for documents as a matter of course, or they were just curious and wanted a chat.
Finally as signs appeared for Mallasa the valley became lush and green, my concentration slipped and too late noticed a speed bump. The bike took off and returned to the earth with a suspension crushing jolt. I heard a thump from the road, checked Jean was still behind me and then looked in the mirrors expecting to see a bottle water splattered in the road. The bike felt a bit light, and as I could hear Jean shouting "The Pannier" it was obvious why.
Pretty tough these panniers, I just wish they would stay where they were meant to. The bolt that holds it on had snapped, another job for the plastic tie clips.
Fortunately the hotel had a room. It also had a pool, and probably the comfiest bed yet. The view over the valley was not bad either.
With only 200k to go the next day we didn't hurry. I cleaned the spark plugs again and checked the bike over, all the time with an eye on the clouds creeping over the rim. Dark clouds.
The climb back up (800m) was steep, and had more speed bumps. One was particularly high. I went over slow but heard a metallic clang and scape. Followed by more scraping noises, the side stand was hanging lose. Somehow the spring had come off. Luck was with us because we found it in the road, and racing against the storm clouds looming I managed to get it refitted just before the rain started.
It doesn't rain here, it flushes. The rush of water was pushing rocks off the valley walls and rivers coursed around bends. It was a relief to finally crest the rim and get back onto the level at El Alto. A short relief as it was back to the standing traffic, 4 or sometimes 5 lanes going nowhere. Now the rain was accompanied by hail stones. I suppose it kept the bike cool.
At this point Jean reminded me she still needed some new waterproofs.
From leaving the hotel to the outskirts of El Alto was about 30k. But 2 hours.
This time the outskirts were really awash, sometimes the water flowed up to our ankles on the bike. The sky was black and there were no gaps between the lightening flashes and the thunderclaps. People had to leap rivers between their doors and the road.
Finally the rain, hail, thunder and lightening faded. All we needed now was fuel. Nowhere had sold us any since the day before, 90k before El Alto. Every station we went to had either run out of gas or just refused to sell to foreigners.
Reserve was used, at least 40k earlier than expected due to the demanding riding, and the "fuel can" came out. Some maths and assuming we really do have 2 litres in reserve (I still have not been able to find the answer) I decided that if I rode economically we would have just enough fuel for the last 91k.
The road to Copacabana is punctuated by small ferry ride.
With one more large hill to climb I had switch to reserve again, exactly at the mileage I had calculated, and we relaxed as the final descent started.
The gas station in Copacabana was out of fuel. They may have some tomorrow. We will be going nowhere for a while.
The wings have definitely all fallen off.
With just a possible 10k of fuel left in the bike, I am contemplating getting a bus into Peru with the fuel can and doing some reverse fuel smuggling.
The day started so well.
The sun was shining, the sky was a deep blue dotted with white fluffy clouds and lake Titicaca shimmered.
On top of this we had a full tank of gas. The "maybe tomorrow" had actually happened at the only gas station in town. After joining the long queue and causing a longer one all the paper work was filled out for foreign vehicle fuel purchase ( 2 forms, 2 different rates, names and passport details). We managed to put 17.25 litres into a 17 litre tank. So, I don't think we even had that 10kms available after all.
It was only 8kms to Peru, we breezed through the Bolivian immigration, smiled at the customs officers who 2 years previously had closed early as they saw us approach, and parked the bike in no mans land.
The Peruvian officials guided us through getting stamped in and pointed us at the aduana for the bike.
Then it all fell apart.
The bike is still in Juan's name, we have been traveling on a notary/solicitors letter giving us authorisation from Juan to take 'his' bike across borders. It specifically states "Argentina, Bolivia and Peru". This was not good enough this time. It had to be in the name of the rider crossing the border. It was against the law for it to be brought into Peru.
No amount of "how can we sort this?", "Is there something we can do?" (hinting that we were prepared to pay, but not use the word 'bribe') would make him change his mind. He was incorruptible, a credit to his country.
We had entered Peru, but the bike was "persona non grata".
Fine, nothing for it but to go back to Bolivia. We went back to the immigration office and requested an exit stamp.
"No, manana (tomorrow)", said the previously helpful official.
"Que ?" I said, "manana" he replied".
"Why? Why not?" I repeated. "Tomorrow" he reaffirmed. Legally, once stamped into Peru you have to stay for 24 hours before you are allowed to leave again.
I explained about the bike sitting in no mans land, the wrong side of the barrier, and that we needed to return to Bolivia. "No, manana".
I may have sworn a bit now.
Coming over all British, we decided it was best to ask a policeman. We marched purposefully over the road in our bike gear, introduced ourselves and explained what was happening. He indicated it was not a problem and asked us to follow him to he "Justice Police". Here we had our visas stamped with a 'negated', returned to 'Mr Manana' who now happily stamped us out.
So now us and the bike were in no mans land.
Great, but what if we have similar problems 500m down the road getting back in Bolivia ?
The Bolivians were surprised to see us back so soon, but once we explained how the Peruvians did not want our money and that we would spend it here instead they stamped us back in. The customs had not processed our bike paperwork yet and happily handed it back as if we had never left.
What now ? Stop over at Copacabana and make new plans ?
Head up the east side of the Lake for 2 days to see if we can get across at the little border post there ?
Try for the main border crossing, Deseguardero, about 6 hours ride, and be refused again ?
Jean stated the obvious, the sun was out, and there wasn't any rain: "lets head for Chile and get past El Alto while it is dry".
There was no doubt the bike could return to Chile, but the crossing was more than a days ride. And of course we had to face El Alto for a 3rd time. Have I mentioned how much we hate this part of the route ?
Armed with a freshly filled 'fuel can' in Copacabana (same gas station, no form filling today) we hit the road.
In the dry El Alto was much easier, Jean rode shotgun banging on the side of collectivos that tried to muscle in on our space while I performed 'imaginative' manoeuvering in non-existent gaps and joined in the ignoring of red traffic lights. A doddle in the dry, without rain and hail, a mere 40 minutes.
The fuel situation raised its head again, once more we were being refused gas. But we persisted, popped into all the gas stations we passed, and eventually managed a fill before we got to our days destination at Patacmaya. So in a 100k radius around La Paz no one would serve fuel to foreigners.
Patacamaya is a small town on the main La Paz to Oruro route, with the road to the Chilean border bisecting it. We had noted previously it had 2 gas stations and a lot of Alojamientos (small, cheap rooms for rent).
Neither gas station had petrol.
It is 380kms to Arica, 190Kms to the border. We filled our tank with the spare fuel.
We walked the entire length of the town asking for a room, everywhere was full. We were beginning to think this was a racist thing until we realised all the truckers in town and the workers on the new dual carriage way also needed somewhere to stay.
Finally we found somewhere with a room, and parking for the bike. The room opened straight onto a wet dirt yard (the 'car park') with piles of rubbish at one end. It was a bare concrete floored room with 2 beds and a window covered with a stained plastic curtain. The shared toilet next door to the room was also a public one. The yard was shared with dogs, cats, chickens, and flies. The flies would dart into the room as soon as the door opened to escape the heat. There was no electricity in the entire town. We had an early night.
At 0530 we were awoken by knocks on doors and shouts of "arriba, arriba", we assumed early morning wake up calls for the workers.
By 0630 we were packed and on the road, it was already busy with people everywhere, boarding buses and collectivos. Neither gas station was selling petrol still, this may have been because there was still no electricity and they could not pump it.
Stuff it, we knew that there was a gas station at the border from our previous trip. If it had no gas, or was not there anymore we would see how far we could get. And if needed, hitch down to Arica for more fuel.
It was time to ride economically again. I could manage 250-280kms on a tank. After the border it was all down hill.
Once more we were lucky, the skies were clear and the ride across the Altiplano towards the snow capped mountains and a smoldering volcano was smooth and easy for the bike. Also the gas station was open and would sell to us.
For a final twist on our descent from 4700m to sea level, over 200kms on twisty poorly maintained roads, the bike decided to pop a front fork seal and spewed oil all over the front tyre just before the Chilean border post at the top.
Now we are at the beach, in the warm and dry, with a bike that can't go anywhere until we find a mechanic prepared to repair the fork 3 days before Christmas. But at least the bike has a tank full of petrol.
It looks like Xmas in Arica. Not a hardship.
On Christmas eve we watched our bike fork seal being repaired on the roadside by the only bike 'mechanic' in town, with the aid of a hammer and screwdriver. General opinion was not to attempt the job ourselves, as we did not have the proper tools or workshop environment. We have plenty of screwdrivers, but obviously the big hammer was our missing specialist tool.
Then we saw Father Christmas ride past on his sledge while doing the samba (he speaks Spanish as well).
On Christmas morning one guest cooked pancakes for everyone at breakfast and Santa left a goodie bag for each of us.
We checked the fork seal, it was still oil tight. We had viable transport again.
Plan B about getting a bus into Peru was ditched. We decided that if the bike could not go in, then neither would we. After dossing around on the beach body boarding, over Christmas and boxing day, we packed all our things and told the hostel owner we were leaving. "We'll go north, south, or be back here later".
Arica, looking north towards Peru. Just 20kms away.
Our first stop was the main customs office in town.
My Spanish is good enough now to be able to explain what we wanted to do, get the bike into Peru with the authorisation letter, and ask if it could be done or if they could help.
"No", "you need the person named on the document to be with you". That was it, no more.
He went on to explain that there is an agreement with Bolivia and Argentina to allow passage on notary letters, but not Peru. So many stolen vehicles go there that Peru changed the law.
The upshot was that they would not even let us leave Chile across that border with the bike, as Peru would not accept it.
Game over, our wings have been clipped.
We would not continue any further north. The mistake was all mine 2 months ago, when we could not get the bike documents changed to my name that day; I should have started the longer process, then we could have collected the documents here in Arica. My impatience to get on the road has finally caught us out.
The Colca Canyon in Peru can wait for another day, another trip. Even though it was the main target I listed at the start of the 'plan'.
So it was south across the desert to Iquique,
On the way to Iquique there was a moment of 'deja vu', as the fuel went to reserve and we pulled over in the same place as 2 years earlier to pour the spare fuel in the bike. Arica to Iquique is 330kms, no gas stations in between.
Iquique, another town with beaches and surf, to sit down and think about what to do. Our problem? Chile is the most western and most expensive country in South America on our trip, our budget does not extend to 5 more weeks here.
We could go back to Bolivia, but after a month there, and with the rainy season in full flow but not the petrol, we don't fancy that.
Argentina ? To get to any bits we would like to see involves riding across a lot of flat, hot pampas. We have seen enough of that.
Wild camping is an option to reduce costs, we still have the tent but it's a pity that the sleeping bags and mats are 200k north of Santiago. But we have been assured by 2 cyclists heading north that the beach is warm and the sand is soft for the next 300k south.
Iquique, lodged between the Pacific and the desert.
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