As we geared up to leave our hostel on Tuesday morning, the owner stopped us for a picture. A stranger on the street then saw us, and he too wanted a shot. This has become a common occurrence for us as we stand out in a crowd with our blonde hair, fair skin, and big dirty motorcycles. It wasn’t long before we began to navigate the border crossing into Bolivia. We entered the country accidentally after making a wrong turn down a main road lined with big trucks waiting their turn for customs, but quickly realized, turned around and found the correct street leading to the border, though it looked far from it. A bustling market spilled out of storefronts, over the sidewalk, and into the street on the doorstep of the Peruvian immigration and customs offices. A kind soldier explained the process to us very clearly, and even offered to watch our bikes while we signed ourselves out of Peru. Once the process was finished, a closer look showed us that this ‘soldier’ was just a guy in an old Bolivian Air Force jacket, the letters of BOLIVIA scratched over with a black pen. He then tried to weasel 10 Soles from each of us for a municipal tax, but when we heard the ticket man say the tax was only 5 Soles, we quickly grabbed our change back from the wannabe solder, making him lose his day’s earnings. Entering Bolivia included the usual activities of discovering the right offices, finding a photocopier, exchanging money all while keeping an eye on our bikes which remained parked to the side of the lively street connecting the two countries, large wheelbarrows of everything from bricks to popcorn flying across the bridge, undocumented exports and imports buzzing past our eyes.
The fight to the front of the customs line was real. Luckily we had arrived second, but the crowd that had gathered around us was ferocious in pushing and shoving to the front, eager to stick some important papers through the crack in the window whenever it was opened. Our dominant Canadian stature made it possible to secure our rightful place in line and soon our papers were behind the window with the border guard.
It was a couple of hours along wide-open land, watching the sharp, brown speckled hills pass us by at a distance. The road was good, the traffic was light, but the air was sharp as we arrived in the bleak outskirts of LaPaz where empty brick buildings gave refuge to stray dogs, and rickety vehicles kicked up waves of dust off the dirty streets. As we approached the city centre, the traffic was what we had grown to expect: madness. At one point we sat in the middle of a gridlocked intersection for at least five cycles of the traffic lights. With each passing green or red light came waves of honking, each driver attempting to inch forward towards the far side. We were cozied up next to a bus which continued to load and offload passengers young and old who had to squeeze past the bikes.
It was no mistake that we had picked LaPaz for the night. Two nights in fact. We had been secretly planning a day trip to Bolivia’s famous Death Road. This, of course, needed to be kept secret from our parents and girlfriends to avoid any worrying. Wednesday morning arrived, and after an improvised oil change in the hotel parking garage, we rode northeast out of the city. The bikes loaded with minimal gear first climbed through the beautiful rocky mountains before descending into the chilly clouds that eventually gave way to a small yellow sign on the side of the highway, marking the treacherous descent to the world famous road which will take your breath away and maybe your life. There are varying accounts of the actual death toll on this road, but one thing is certain: it has dramatically declined in recent years following the construction of an alternate paved highway for the semi-trailers that travel the area out of necessity. That leaves the single-lane, gravel-capped, cliff-topping road open for people like us. With almost zero oncoming traffic, the road is much more enjoyable, and we shared our descent with a few groups of tourists who had rented mountain bikes for the day to conquer the road that way. It was a continuous downhill adventure, the cliffs to our right lined with thin waterfalls that sometimes poured directly on to our heads; the cliffs to our left were shear drops into the jungle below. The tight turns yielded many spectacular views, though they were more enjoyable from a standstill, and we took breaks fairly often to really absorb the experience and take all the mandatory photos. Once at the bottom, we celebrated our death-free day by climbing up to the small town of Coroico, which sits on a big hillside facing both the old, treacherous road, and the new paved highway which we would take home that afternoon. That road was equally enjoyable and consisted of stunning views of deep lush valleys, mist topped hillsides and the snaking roads that travelled across them. The hard surface allowed for a bit more speed and more fun in the turns which, yes, usually had a guardrail to prevent any bad situation from getting infinitely worse. We climbed and climbed, ultimately reaching the clouds. At first it appeared as though it might just be some fog, but it then became apparent that we were in fact in a world of clouds. It was cold, there was zero visibility, and it was wet without really raining. We once again fought our way through the traffic to our hotel, ending the day as we had started it – warm and dry.
The next day we ate as much as we could of the breakfast included in our rooms from the eighth floor of Hotel Berlina, overlooking the city’s steep hills, burdened with a sea of redbrick homes. It was only maybe an hour later that we found ourselves faced with the prospect of riding up one of these hills, one which city planners had evidently decided did not require switchbacks. Dom reached the top fairly easily and had time to watch the fun that would ensue. Ben was struggling to maintain speed up the incredible hill, and Tym soon passed him, losing a water bottle shortly thereafter. He too soon reached the summit as Ben and Howie came grinding to a halt. Even in first gear, the fully loaded bike could not get enough steam to conquer the incline. After a few more attempts, and even with Tym pushing from behind, the bike died about 50 feet from the top. Dom rushed over to help, but the hill was too much for Team Alaskentina and the boys relied on the reluctant help of a stranger to finish the job. Except the stranger left before the job was done! A scary moment saw the bike roll back towards the boys who each braced themselves, and those who could reached for whichever brake they could find. Tym soon had the wisdom to move to the front of the bike, grab on to the crash bar, and pull from the front. This entire ordeal was made more difficult by the small pebbles of gravel that lay ominously on the hard pavement, like little ball bearings waiting to send the three boys and the big bike sliding down the long hill towards Tym’s water bottle.
With the bike secured on the top of the hill, Tym’s bottle was retrieved and the map reviewed, we were once again on the move. The rest of the journey out of the city was a relative breeze and we had a short day scheduled to the town of Oruro. Along the way we stopped at an old abandoned church which caught our eye from the highway, and shortly after we found our hostel with enough time to spare for us to explore the city. The markets are always a sight to see. All of the items for sale, new and used, are piled as high as possible on unstable tables, quiet vendors sitting on a low stool wrapped in a blanket and clutching a bowl of soup, waiting for a customer. We tried a classic Bolivian desert: jello with whipped cream, but the cream was sour and the jello tasted like cough syrup. A disappointment! The day ended with a rehearsal for the town’s upcoming parade, the music blasting through the hostel walls into our bedrooms as groups of girls and boys danced in the street; jumping, clapping, and chanting to the beat.
Friday came and once again we had a short day lined up, but an exciting one nonetheless! We were heading to the Uyuni Salt Flats. The Bolivian highways continued to surpass our expectations and we were making great time across the high Andean plains. We turned into the town of Colchani, just north of Uyuni, and filled up on gas and egg and sausage sandwhiches before setting off into the unknown. A dirty gravel road led us out of town, and in the blink of an eye the landscape had completely opened up. It was flat as far as the eye could see, and small octagonal ridges of salt offered our only taste of texture. A big black cloud occupied the sky to the north, and barely visible were small funnel clouds lifting sand or salt up into the air. An incredible spectacle that was made all the more enjoyable by the freedom to stare for as long as desired without the need to worry about steering or riding off the road. A web of smoothed and darkened paths across the flats indicated the path of heavy traffic, but riding along the wide-open flats was just as smooth. As we rode sometimes together and sometimes apart, we were always enthralled by the experience we were living. We took lots of pictures, playing with perspective and playing with the drone in this, the motorcyclist’s playground. It was soon decided that we needed to spend the night on the salt, and made a quick trip back into town for some water and more egg and sausage sandwhices, before yet again venturing out on to the flats, this time away from the storm clouds. The exhilaration of riding never died, like skating on a vast frozen lake in the winter when the ice freezes perfectly and before the snow falls.
Finding an appropriate campsite was easy, but what was hard was setting up the tents. By now the wind had picked up drastically, and it took the three of us to set up each tent, filling the empty shell with all of our heavy belongings before putting up the poles. Tent pegs were out of the question as the hard packed salt was impenetrable. Instead we tied off corners of the tents to our motorcycles, our spare tires, and the heavy bundle of wrenches. It worked. The tents were up. We had a hasty supper of egg sandwiches and a couple of beers before nightfall. When the vast sky turned black, the openings between the clouds were filled with the wonders of distant galaxies and we stared up in awe. Tym masterminded some amazing photos which required a systematic operation of running to our tents and quickly flashing our headlamps for a prescribed amount of time before running out again to see how the shot turned out. You be the judge! We went to sleep with the tents flapping ferociously in the wind that continued, infallibly, well into the night.
We awoke Saturday morning to silence – pure, unbroken silence. Not a breath of wind. Not a cloud in the sky. The bright sun beat down on the infinite mass of salt under our tents, under our feet, and under our bikes. We leisurely packed up camp without fear of tents or belongings blowing off into the distance. Dom brewed up a batch of coca tea – now a morning ritual whenever possible, and we sipped happily as we prepared to venture about 300km south towards the Argentinian border. One more easy day before reaching the country which until now has been an idea. A destination. Now we could smell it.
But then, Bolivia’s highways disintegrated and disappeared. Immediately after Uyuni, the road turned to gravel. It seemed to be an average construction zone for a while, and we skipped onto the unfinished asphalt behind the barricades whenever possible to enjoy the smooth sailings that it offered. However, this did not last. We were forced onto the temporary roads, over and over again. We constantly tried to avoid the detours, and sometimes we were successful, and other times we were not. And then there was no trying to be done – the main road disappeared altogether. Our GPS and Google Maps showed us miles away from the yellow line indicating a main highway that did not exist. The side roads were tricky and got trickier. We fought to maintain control of the bikes in heavy sand; we faced teeth-chattering, spine-crunching, rib-wrenching washboard; and we skidded and slid through pockets of deep gravel. Thick dust was a common enemy as we passed innumerable trucks and pieces of equipment headed in the opposite direction, ostensibly to finish building this godforsaken road. The construction zone lasted about 200km and eight hours. There were a couple of falls, a bit of aggravation, some merited frustration, some laughs and a lot of head shaking. We met a couple of riders heading the opposite direction late in the afternoon. They were planning on reaching Uyuni. “Not a chance, amigos. Lo siento!” Hopefully they got to wherever they got to safely. Despite the unexpected difficulties of the day, the road led us through some incredible mountain passes. High in the Andes we looked out over amazingly colourful rock formations. Blues, reds, and purples poured out of folded rock faces against the backdrop of infinite other unique pieces of mighty rock in the arid landscape. Towards Tupiza, the rock had been washed away in floods of biblical proportions, leaving pillars of deep orange in the canyon walls. When trees began to reappear, the long unseen green seemed almost fake against the red backdrop. The amazing sights to behold were enough to momentarily ease the muscle and joint pain from the day’s test of endurance.
Tupiza was a welcome town of liveliness, helped by the big parade underway as we arrived. The music was reminiscent of the late-night street practice in Oruro, and the stompers, jumpers and chanters were the same but this time dressed up in fancy bell-clad boots and blue velvet suits. It was a sight to see, and to hear!
Overnight the firm mattresses realigned our spines and we were ready to venture to Argentina. We had numerous sources verify that the road south was in impeccable condition which was a wonderful piece of news. First we needed gas. Our last fill up in Bolivia and we have yet to fully understand the process. There is a local price, and an international price. Some gas stations won’t serve gas to international plates, some will ask for double the rate. Some attendants will entertain a back and forth of bargaining, others blame security cameras for not reducing the price. If you forego a receipt, there is a better chance of reducing the price, but not guaranteed. All to say every fill up is as mysterious as it is entertaining. This morning’s fill up was no different and a quick drug-deal style payment was made behind the cover of a booth away from the nosy eyes of the camera.
Well, our sources were right and the road to Argentina was excellent. A series of wide-open stretches of flat straight road, interrupted occasionally by gentle twists and subtle hills, led us to the border shortly after 10.
The first immigration stamp came quickly and painlessly. Next, however, was the mission we were hoping to avoid – finding a photocopier to exit Bolivian customs. Dom and Ben marched up the busy market street, leaving Tym to keep an eye on the bikes. The two pals poked their heads into every shop that looked promising and asked for a ‘copia’. The resounding answer was ‘no’ followed by a dismissive point or nod up the street and a muttered ‘mas arriba’. Many photocopy shops lined the streets but, being Sunday, they were all closed. Eventually, after a good twenty minutes the two found an internet café with a scanner to get the important documents copied, then splurged on a taxi back to the border. A slight delay, a minor inconvenience, but now we were set. Cleared out of Bolivia, our next step was Argentinian customs, where we were missing a very important form: a reciprocity tax charged to Canadian tourists! We had seen this once before, entering Colombia from Panama, but Captain Ludwig had taken care of the paperwork for us. The form we needed this time was different. We needed to complete an online form and present the printed receipt of the $78 USD tourist tax. At least we knew where the internet café was! This time we took the bikes, each settled in front of a slow, Spanish computer and Googled our way to the right page, made an account, filled out the form, made the payment, printed the sheet and returned to the border crossing. Is it over yet?
Next obstacle was the insurance. To date we have bought motorcycle insurance when necessary at the border. This time, of course, was different. Nowhere to buy insurance; it was Sunday, remember? We were facing the prospect of being denied entrance to Argentina… after all the miles we had come! Worst case scenario we would have to wait until the following day, but our friend with the green glasses got the go-ahead from her boss to let us in if we promised to get insurance the next day. Of course, we promised. We were then asked to take off all of our luggage for the x-ray machine. Great. How could this border crossing get any slower! It didn’t take that long, though, and after a picture next to the sign indicating 5121km to Ushuaia, we were on our way. Finally. We had made it to Argentina.
We were welcomed to Argentina by pale yellow grass fading into the soft brown-speckled hills, topped with the enormous light blue sky. It was perfect riding weather. The roads were great. The bikes had survived. We had survived. Despite thousands of kilometres remaining, entering Argentina felt like a victory.
Our plans for riding Ruta Cuarenta, the long scenic route along the western edge of this enormously long country, would have to wait as we needed to set ourselves up to buy insurance. We stopped for the night in the nice, quiet town of Humahuaca. Today we will search for insurance in Salta, and then wander over towards Ruta Cuarenta where we will spend the next couple of weeks camping our way down the country towards Ushuaia. We expect gas stations and internet access to be inconsistent, so please forgive any delays in uploading photos or blog posts!