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Hi, Corumba!

YacusesI awoke at dawn but arose when the sun rose a clear hour above the horizon and packed away at leisure. Reaching the border down of Puerto Quijarro, I refuelled to use up my remaining Bolivianos then breakfasted on chicken and rice at a local’s cafe, in preparation for engagement with the border agents just down the road.

Bolivian ImmigrationI breezed through Bolivian Migraciones: three people in front of me then: stamp, vamos… Over the road at Aduana Nacional, the gates were firmly closed. A sign indicated Cerrado from 12.30 to 14.30. It was now 12.47 – most unexpected. I’d have skipped breakfast if I’d anticipated that.

Carlos BMW Adventure 1200None of the cafes nearby provided WiFi. Wandering around the dusty, sun-baked street, I decided I may as well hang around the Aduana entrance. There was a family already there. Time crawled by as I kicked over the gravel in the car park. More people began to gather from 13.50. I was glad I’d decided to wait here as the queue expanded to about 8 people by the time the bolt was slid across to open the gate.

Sitting at the counter was a young guard, looking not too long out of school, clad in military olive green, pistol prominent in his holster and tasked with fielding the customers. After an hour watching the office workers behind him wandering between desks, sheets of paper clasped between fingers and thumb ( a trick I used to use at an old office job in order to look busy) I’m invited in and told I need two photocopies. “Over there at the photocopier?” No across the road at the shop. “Just these two?” Yes, just those.

Corumba, River Paraguay

City of Corumba

Cristo Redenta, Corumba, Brazil

Corumba’s friendly idol.

I returned and presented the documents to the armed guard at the desk. He said, “You need copies of these two as well.” And I marched, stone-faced, over the road to buy two more copies. I shouldn’t have felt surprised really. My documents and passport disappeared into the back office without explanation. Watching the clock at 16:00, I thought, “Not much longer, the office closes at five.” Eventually, a portly official summoned three of us together and we followed him and his camera downstairs to our vehicles. Me; a young Bolivian, smartly groomed, gaudy jewellery, crucifix, baggy shell suit – common in the 90’s and a clean white car, the thought, drug dealer sprang to mind; and Carlos with his mighty BMW Adventure 1200, badged up with all the countries of the South American continent. The agent snapped pictures of the licence plates, chassis and engine numbers before we obediently filed back upstairs to his office.

16.30 I’m released into freedom, documents in hand ready for tackling Brazilian Migraciones. The Brazilian queue stretched out of the door and about ten metres along the sidewalk. We appeared to not move for some time and then suddenly shuffled forward a handful of metres like a blockage had been cleared. I secured my entry stamp no bother. “Is this all I need?” Yes and, with an impatient wave from the official, I’m out of the office and into Brazil.

The dull, grey, unmarked customs office across the road went unnoticed and I happily sped east away from the border into Corumba. My error was exposed when a couple of German riders, Manuel and Frank arrived at the hostel and I mentioned I only had to get one stamp compared to Bolivia before happily riding into Corumba.

Indoor Camping

Me, at home in Corumba

Road Riders Hostel, Corumba, Brazil

Corumba’s friendly hostel

I returned to the border twice in the next few days: one to pick up the instructions for filling out the import permit form online and again to bring the printed out form into the office. How about setting up a terminal and printer for the purpose of getting it done there and then guys?

Road Riders Hostel is a friendly place and I had the option for pitching the tent in the carport/bar area for half the price of a dorm. I took that. The tradeoff, apart from a thin

Road Riders Hostel, Corumba

Corumba’s friendly Hostel Owner.

mattress on ceramic tiles, was the late night chatter in the bar followed by early morning chatter as the staff cleaned and prepared the hostel for the day. I caught catnaps when I could and found a quiet corner whenever a party sparked up.

Baixinhos Motos, Corumba

Corumba’s friendly moto mechanic

The steering on the Yamaha liked to stick straight ahead and caused me to weave around bends. Diego is a mechanic but recommended Baixinho Motos and I dropped by the very next day. Baixinho spoke no English but understood the problem as I pointed at it and mimed the issues. He also detected worn swing arm bushes by wobbling the rear tyre from side to side, a good fifteen to twenty millimetre of play from side to side. No wonder I was weaving around the bends. I left the bike with him and he fired up a spare moped to drop me across town to the hostel.

Parrot Fashion

Corumba’s friendly wildlife.

The next day, Diego gave me a ride back to the garage. Baixinho pointed out the worn sprockets and chain and I tell him I have new ones back at the hostel. Diego drove me back to the hostel to pick them up. Baixinho said could fit them on the bike within an hour while I waited. He introduced me to his parrots out the back. They were talking to me but I didn’t yet understand Portuguese.

The bike was given a comprehensive service including an oil change. The bill came to around R250 (£55). Manoel, a customer with a Yamaha 250 asked me about my journey on the little 125 and invited me to his home for lunch. With our limited language skills, we could barely communicate but I happily accepted the invitation.

Manoel Neto

Corumba’s friendly residents

The YB125 felt like a new machine: light clutch, stable cornering. Much more secure in its handling. I couldn’t help letting out groans of pleasure inside my helmet. We enjoyed a pleasant lunch and chatted via broken English, Portuguese, Spanish and google translate.

Corumba, Petrobras Fuel Station

Corumba’s friendly fuel station attendants.

Buenos Aires Bakery, in Corumba, serves delicious cappuccino and fresh sandwiches. Whenever I visited, there was only ever a maximum of six people present, mostly waiting at the checkout due to the cashier being so slow. I helped myself to chocolate and juice off the shelves’ holding them up to get the nod from the cafe staff before and returning to my table to wait for the coffee and sandwiches. Later at the checkout, 15 Reals rang up on the till as I presented the empty chocolate wrapper and bottle to the cashier. She forgot to add the coffee and sandwiches from the tab of table 3.

Later, at the supermarket, it dawned on me that the bill came to only about £3 and so I returned to Buenos Aires to pay the balance. They had no clue that the bill was unpaid and we ran through the menu to tot up the missing items.

VIP Barber's, Corumba

Corumba’s friendly Barbers.

Despite the electric fences around people’s houses and the broken bottles cemented into the top of high walls, Bikers leave their bikes unsecured with helmets hanging on their mirrors. Cars are left with doors unlocked. Brazilian people appear to be honest, open and trusting. Probably the friendliest place I’ve been to so far. The sort of world I’d like to live in… Friendly.

 

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Aguas Calientes, Bolivia

Route 4, BoliviaEARLY AFTERNOON IN the wake of England’s second defeat to Belgium in the World Cup and I’m eastbound on Route 4. Estancia Aguas Calientes is only 165km and I take it steady to save fuel. I pass the gas station at Robore with the gauge just over a quarter but gamble on fuel being available at Aguas Calientes 30km further on. “Get it while you can.” Is my fuel mantra since I don’t yet carry reserves. Rarely do I obey it though and start fretting when the needle plummets below the last quarter mark.

Aguas Calientes, BoliviaBearing right off the highway onto the red dirt track to launched me into a sand pit and the Yamaha’s narrow tyres fight to stay on the surface. I haven’t mastered riding in deep sand yet. The steering doesn’t work and the rear wheel drifts sideways. Losing momentum results in the rear wheel trying to bury itself as I try to move off. I try to find the firmest looking car tracks and keep moving forward, paddling my feet like a swan trying to take off from a lake.

Aguas Calientes, BoliviaI ride into the Miraflores Toucan campsite around 16:30. I spot only two other tents here down in the far corner near the waterside. I select a quiet area near the trees and no other attractions. Quickly pitched, I change into shorts and t-shirt, grab a towel and stroll down to the lake.

Aguas Calientes, Bolivia34C feels surprisingly warm and I wade out, waste deep toward the shimmering surface where the bubbles are breaking the surface, crystal clear water, into the warm humid air. I soak until the sun sets, stirring up the sand and attracting the fish to whatever’s being released by the bubbles. Every now and then, I feel a nip as a fish forages for food. A school of them find the flaking skin between my toes where I’ve contracted athletes foot and nibble away. They can have that

Aguas Calientes, BoliviaOut into the tree-shaded campsite, the moon is a thin crescent, not enough to add to the sparse lighting around the site. I buy a beer from the attendant and ask about fuel during our conversation. “Robore.” he says. I’d seen that fuel station 25Km back from where I came. I laugh and feel I need to explain why. It was the station I had passed way back. He tells me someone in the village sells out bottles for 5bob a litre. I say, “That’s cheap” and he says “No, muy caro” until I explain the international rate of “Ocho por litro!” He shows me on my sat nav app where to go in the village. The main thing is I don’t have to backtrack for 8bob a litre.

Aguas Calientes, BoliviaThe dawn paints in a rose petal sky as I enter the warm clear waters of the lake. I consider going in naked since it’s early and not many people are around. I play safe and keep my briefs on, followed, ten minutes later, by a family of three.

Aguas Calientes, BoliviaI decamp and pack away slowly to scoot the bike along the sandy track toward the fuel bottles in the village. After asking a couple of stores, I found a private cabana on the corner. “Seis!” he tells me and I ask for six litres without haggling the sixty pence difference. He looks like he needs it more than I do. Six litres tops me up just perfectly.

Aguas Calientes, BoliviaThe sat nav indicates a restaurant perched on the bypass around the village but it doesn’t seem to exist in my physical reality. The time was 10:50 and the World Cup Final between France and Croatia was kicking off at 11. I hang a U-turn at the junction and cruise back into the village to the store across from the fuel vendor that I noticed packed with people settled in plastic patio chairs.

I thread myself between the crowd and the stacks of fruit and veg and order a cold Coke and ask if I can watch the match. The seats are all taken and I prop myself against his fridge for a two-hour stint on my feet but the shopkeeper brings a stool out and invites me to sit next to his potatoes.

Everyone appears to be cheering for Croatia. Seems, we all like the underdog… The breeze through the store takes the stickiness out of the tropical humidity and the open-sided shade of the store was the perfect place in the World for watching a World Cup Final.

Yacuces, BoliviaShortly after midday, the little Yamaha was humming its way eastwards toward the Brazilian border, 210km away. I wanted a break before tackling the bureaucrats, so my target was to be a wild camping site near Yucuces, 165km away, which would leave about 45km to the border the next morning. Today though, a fast but leisurely journey on these straight and level roads. Time enough for Sunday lunch in El Carmen Rivero Torrez,

Turning of the El Carmen bypass, the hexagon paving blocks are cute to look at but rough to ride on and they deliver me to a bare looking Plaza surrounded by market stalls and booming PA speakers. I find a food stall just off the Plaza and face the customary plate of chicken and rice. A cold beer helps both relax and revive me. I check the sat nav for my destination.

The wild campsite on the sat nav gives no clue to landmarks to look out for and I add the distance of the junction that leads off the main road to the milometer and count down the miles along route 4. There aren’t that many junctions and the turning I finally take is the only candidate for miles. A loose gravel track leads north away from the main road for five kilometres. Tall dry pampas half obscures a pair of laybys that combine to make a turning circle with a six-metre radius. Nothing here but tall grass, gravel and telltale signs of campers. Litter remains scattered over the floor: blister packs for tablets, cotton buds, food wrappers, used batteries, tissues. Man tracks…

Yacuces CampEarly evening brings out the flies, dancing before my eyes, distracting me as I pitch the tent in the edge of the pampas, flattening the grass for creating a softer sleeping base over the underlying gravel. I wheel the bike close to the tent and, from the track, I’m almost invisible. Passing traffic would have to look 90 degrees to notice me. Nobody passes, day or night.

The only sounds in the night are of nature, birds I’d never heard before, no traffic or booming music. The black sky scattered with stars and the pale belt of the milky way directly overhead. In the day, an uninspiring laser straight country lane. By night a magical alien soundscape and a firmament so clear and bright and close enough to almost reach with outstretched arms.

A creature sounding about the size of a small dog brushes past the tent. I lay quiet and it disappears as fast and silently as it came…

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San Jose de Chiquitos

Jesuit Misiione of San Jose de Chiquitos300KM… IT LOOKED A tall order to start with and now it was officially afternoon and I’ve only knocked off 25km. Whatever… If I have to sleep in a field then so be it.

1 pm on the ring road. The traffic is busy enough to be stop-start. The midday sun is on my left shoulder as I head east. I estimate that when my shadow is in front of me then it’s time to look for the junction for route 4 east.

San Jose de Chiquitos MissionAt the traffic lights, I notice a horse and cart at the curb and think “How quaint.” The lights change and the truck moves off and I almost run into the back of it when it slams on its brakes to avoid the quaint horse and cart merrily trotting across the dual carriageway.

My shadow moves ahead of me and I stop to check the sat nav. Route 4 is 200metres ahead. Eastbound on the ring road, the traffic begins to thin and pick up speed. The cityscape takes a long time to dissolve into the countryside. So slow that I don’t notice when the buildings have all gone, replaced by fertile green fields on plains reaching far beyond the flat horizon.

Flat plains foster straight roads and I was maintaining a steady 80kmh at ¾ throttle.

I reach behind to check for my water bottle. Gone! It must have jumped out of its tethering when I hit the speed hump that I noticed far too late in the last town. 180Km, my neck is getting stiff, I notice the fuel gauge at 2/3. 120Km to go. The gauge lies. I know the needle starts to plummet below the bottom half.

The straight level road has been paved all the way with very little traffic. I’ve kept the speed below 90km and watched the kilometres roll away at a rate unknown in the mountains. 60Km to go and the gauge is below a quarter. The best range from this level, I’ve managed so far, is 40km. The last town was 20km behind me and I’m concerned now. All I can do is watch the needle drop and count down the kilometres. “El Certo 8,” a sign tells me. The village is either hidden or so small I miss it. Another sign, “Quimome 10km”

Hotel Villa Chiquitana, San JoseI pull over in Quimome and ask at the store about ‘Gasolina’ he points to the turning I’d just passed on my right but don’t understand what he’s saying. I notice the water bottle hanging by the left-hand pannier and refresh myself with a long slug of water before I go to three more locations in the general direction of the fuel, venturing away from the main road along a dirt track, into the village. A small handwritten sign hangs from the porch of a cabana on the corner of the street. I strike gold with four 2 litre bottles of petrol at 10bob a bottle.

I stand the bike upright off the side stand to squeeze in the last of the 8 litres and weave my way around the potholes back to route 4, thanking the people that helped along the way with a hoot and a wave. So I now have a rough range of a tank on a straight level road about 280km guessing the last bit of needle on the gauge. I leave my jacket unzipped for the air to help dry the sweat down my back. I’ve noticed the temperature rising, the further east I go, even with the cooling effect of the airstream.

I roll into San Jose de Chiquitos just before sunset. I didn’t expect this kind of progress. My average speed must have been about 65km/h, way above the usual 40 or 50.

San Jose, CristoHotel Villa Chiquitana has rave reviews on iOverlander. The lobby is immaculately clean and the place looks a cut above the usual standard I’m used to. Jerome the owner, tells me they no longer accept tents, as they have caused so much trouble, and directs me to Balneario el Quebracho. “You can’t miss it, there’s a giant white Jesus in the middle of the road, it’s just past that…”

Balneario de Quebracho, San Jose de ChiquitosI set up and rest in the tent until dark before taking the 1km stroll into the Plaza. On the eastern side, the Jesuit mission is warmly illuminated in a sepia orange glow, rekindling romantic memories with my fiance when we visited the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas… an age has passed since then… another life ago.

The plaza is a beautiful expanse of tree-shaded openness, crying out for a perimeter of quality cafes and restaurants. Instead, a single side to the south boasts budget fast food of the usual chicken, rice and pizza. Set away from the strip on the western side is La Tortilla, serving Tacos, Burritos and Nachos.

Settling down in the tent, the night is comfortably warm. I’m too tired to read and I lay back to listen to the serenade of the chirrups of the creatures of the night, plus the bugle sounding a plaintive post from the military base just down the road. A distant dog howls its own response out of the darkness.

Toucan, San Jose de ChiquitosI awake just before dawn, not because of the cold but due to a menagerie of animal noises, cockerels by the busload, the caw of a toucan, unknown tropical songs together with collective shouts from the infantrymen on the training ground. Just after the sun casts leafy shadows over my tent, I open the door and see the mosquitos dance up and down the fly screen. A horse trots by, untethered and unencumbered by harness or saddle. A circular saw screams in the near distance. It’s clear in the warm tropical light of day that this place is undergoing a refurbishment. I appear to be the only guest. I don’t mind. I promptly pay for an extra night…

Once washed and dressed, I pack my laptop in the satchel and walk up to the plaza in mosquito armour of fleece and jeans under the midday sun. I feel the sweat trickle down my spine. The mosquitos seem to avoid the street but I don’t take the trouble to take my fleece off, instead moving from shade to shade along the street up to the central plaza.

Hotel Villa ChiquitanaI’m looking for a place suitable for uploading a blog and the plaza isn’t it. I walk an extra kilometre down to the hotel I visited yesterday. Hotel Villa Chiquetana. Electric, Wifi and decent coffee. I choose the corner table in the restaurant next to a mains socket. Windows border both sides a view to the patio area of the restaurant and the other looking out across the lawn toward the pool. Indoors being only marginally cooler than outdoors became a haven of solitude and productivity for the rest of the day.

Hotel Villa ChiquitanaMy second visit to La Tortilla for Mexican fare cemented a good friendship with the proprietors. I think they don’t see a lone gringo on a motorcycle stop by very often.

I’m up at eight the next morning and pack away well in time for the 10 am England Belgium 3rd place playoffs at the Hotel Villa Chiquitana. I secure an early seat. No-one else joins me. The patio is mine and the cashier’s, who occupies herself sweeping the breakfast crumbs from under the tables. I take advantage of the WiFi and comfort until 14:00. Kilometres need vacuuming up fast to make my Bolivian visa deadline at the Brazilian border by the 17th of July. Today’s the 14th plenty of time in hand…

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Tangerine Dreams.

Porongo Tangarines, Morgante Nature and FoodI LAY IN bed imagining the distance of the fuel gauge from needle to empty and distance from Porongo to fuel stations on my Android apps. The nearest were 6km in La Guardia fording the river. The nearest over the bridge was 26km. I wasn’t sure I’d make it that far, the speed the needle drops on the lower half of the gauge. The thought was debilitating but there was nothing to do until it came to moving anyway.

The next morning, after fruitlessly cycling thoughts through the fuel conundrum, I emerge out of the tent into the cool shade of the tangerine trees, breakfasting on their generous fruit off the leafy floor, I set off walking to take a Porongo Fordlook at the river crossing. 2km, the GPS told me until I’d already walked a kilometre into Porongo, which by then had changed to 4km. Sticky humid air under an overcast sky stuck the t-shirt to my back, reminding me of my work in the sweaty oil fields of East Texas back in 1982. The round trip would now be 8km instead of 4. Still, I had all day.

The block paving of the Porongo streets merged into the rust-red sand, at the edge of the village, deeply rutted in places by the tyres of heavy trucks. Walking was easy but dull on the dead straight dirt track. Eventually, I reached a ford, a stream about two metres across and 5 centimetres deep. The GPS app put me on a river bank at least a hundred metres wide. It didn’t tally with the amount of water I saw yesterday at the crossing further upstream or what was on the screen. I scratched my head and turned round to go back. I didn’t know at the time but two hundred metres further on would be the ford across the river 30cm deep and about 80 metres across.

I noticed a sign in Porongo hanging on a bungalow “Hay Gasolina.” My saviour. I could fill up here and thus relaxed into village life and watched Belgium beat Brazil in the world cup quarterfinals at the local restaurant while feasting on yet more chicken, rice and fried banana. It seems whatever I order, it consists of chicken, rice and fried banana. How about some fish and chips or burritos?

Porongo to La Guardia FordStripping all the straps and remaining luggage off the bike the next morning I set off to the river after Giulio told me I must have been at the small river, not the main one. He was right. I fought with the loose sand along the track and the bare riverbed and sat at the water’s edge to watch traffic cross. I waited a while and saw only a lone cyclist push his bike across the knee-deep flow.

I turned round to visit the bungalow with the ‘Gasolina’ sign. “No! No gasolina!” There seems to be a common habit of displaying signs for non-existent goods and services. I can see the logic for cafes advertising WiFi for attracting disappointed customers but a bungalow that has nothing else for sale? How about taking the sign indoors. Eventually, I found a motorcycle repair shop around the corner from the restaurant that had petrol in two-litre mineral water bottles. I was saved and celebrated with another meal at the restaurant They didn’t have what I ordered yesterday so I ordered something else and got chicken, rice and fried banana with a different sauce on the side while watching The Simpsons dubbed in Spanish.

Instead of El Simpsons, I watch the policeman at the crossroads trying to work out why he was posted there diverting traffic from entering the empty plaza via a full-width road with no traffic passing either direction. I guessed the stretch was a one-way street… with hardly any traffic… why? The following night I ride to the store to buy some water and do a u-turn in the Plaza on the journey back. A local flapped his arms frantically trying to get me, the only vehicle moving within a quarter of a mile to turn round. I returned to the campsite without passing another vehicle.

Santa Cruz de la SierraRefuelling gave me the freedom to run in and out to Santa Cruz and explore the city centre. I got to know which streets weren’t amputated with an improvised dead end or disempowered by a “no left turn.” Many of the crossroads looked like four-way stop junctions but without the stop signs. Seems to be that the bravest goes first. The best strategy for me seemed to be, keep a good rolling pace slow Santa Cruz de la Sierraenough for an emergency stop but fast enough that I could gun it through and be clear pronto once I was sure there was no traffic within striking distance. I memorised the easiest route to the central plaza and found the customary Irish Pub that seems to sprout not far from South American Cathedrals and Plazas.

Many travellers have spoken of visiting Santa Cruz but, being here, I haven’t seen any. Probably the least touristy city I’ve been to so far. I like it here even when the cold snap arrived extinguishing the pleasant balmy t-shirt climate. The wind came out of the south, I imagined from the cold plains of Argentina, and threw the bike weaving from centre to verge along the road to Santa Cruz. It was cold now, I had to break out my padded coat from my improvised pillowcase in the tent then empty the pockets and stuff it back in come bedtime.

Giulio, the host is a good friend now. He gave me a tour of his new land purchase near the national park where he plans to build tree houses to let out. There is evidence of growth and development in the area and when they build the new bridges across the river, land prices here will soar. I got to hang out with his friends in Santa Cruz, as we cheered on Belgium against France in the World cup Semifinal.

Samta Cruz del la Sierra Skyline

The wind dropped and the sky cleared but it was still cold. I stay one night in the appropriately tangerine coloured VW Combi, which was more comfortable and not quite as chilly. I decide to stay for the England semi-final leave the next day eastbound 750km toward Brazil: a three or four-day trip before my Bolivian visa runs out.

VW Combi, Bolivia9am, I meet the landlord’s elderly father entering the gate come to feed the pigs with the scraps from the restaurant he runs in the village. A cheerful man wishing me “Buena dia.” they knock the s of the greeting here. I warm myself on the chair on the porch receiving the full beam of the morning sun, while peeling a third tangerine still spitting the pips out from the second before riding into Santa Cruz for breakfast and watch Croatia beat England in the world cup semifinal. The other plans I had for being online evaporated along with England’s 1966 dreams.

The cold snap passed and the wind dropped to a calm comfortable evening and I ride back to Porongo with the sun kissing the mountain tops on the lilac dusted horizon. It’s rush hour in Porongo and I pass one Mazda pickup and one Ox-drawn cart of tangerines as I ride to the moto repair shop to refuel with three 2 litre bottles of petrol. Returning to base camp, the host is away, which means no access to the shower since it’s locked away in his home. I would quite like internet access now I’m refuelled and relaxed. There’s no access to it anywhere I know of in Porongo and it’s not worth the 25km ride back to Santa Cruz.

I browse through the maps on the phone. The destination I select as my next target is Hotel Villa Chiquitana in San Jose de Chiquitos, 300km away. The reviews tell of this four-star hotel permitting tents pitching on the extensive lawn down by the swimming pool. If I make it in one jaunt it will be the furthest I’ve ridden in one day in South America, or ever on a motorcycle under 900cc. Weather shouldn’t be a problem and the road is as straight as anything I’ve seen on the flat plains on the altiplano but then again, I expected an easy day of Samaipata to Santa Cruz.

I’m often reluctant to get moving. I get to know a place and end up liking it then I have to give up all that investment and step into the unknown once again. It rarely feels exciting. It takes a good couple of hours to pack away, I’ve left everything to the last minute as usual, due to my dislike of packing. I promised myself one last breakfast at the AME cafe twenty-odd kilometres away in Santa Cruz and it was already 11.20. I’d yet to roll the tent up into its bag. 11.30 and I’m hammering along the road to Santa Cruz. I’ve got to know every bump and bend in the last 5 days and lean the fully loaded Yamaha over as far as I dare around each bend and try to counter fear induced stiffening of my arms and upsetting the balance of the bike. 11.55 I stroll into the AME Cafe and get my order in for an Americano, chicken and banana free breakfast before the noon deadline…

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A Bridge Too Far

Cuevas Falls, Samaipata.LAS CUEVAS IS only 20km away from Samaipata but a visit to the waterfalls had been recommended. The campsite across the road wedges itself in the elbow of the hairpin as the road crosses the river. I pitched the tent as far from the roadside as I could, then wandered across to visit the falls.

Small and pretty, freshly cut grass and clearly marked paths to the red sandy beaches of the falls. The falls are all within half a kilometre (there are no caves.)

Las Cuevas, Samaipata, BoliviaA few people were enjoying the sun and the water. It was a pleasant enough visit but I would have preferred staying at Serena in hindsight. Sometimes a visit is worthwhile to extinguish the curiosity that is carried if ever an opportunity is missed.Las Cuevas Camping, Samaipata, Bolivia

After the road crosses the river, it scales the hillsides on either side. There is no escaping the noise of the overnight truck’s bellowing exhaust brakes on the descent and the chugging and roaring gearshifts on the ascent.

I waited for the morning sun to dry the dew off the tent before packing away. Santa Cruz is less than 100km east, and my planned camp at Porongo lies at least 10km closer. I should make it in less than three hours, even on dirt tracks.

In the pale yellow light of a warm sunny day, I rattled over rocky dirt roads and rolled over dusty grey asphalt. Signs warned me of speed humps that were sometimes there, sometimes not. And speed humps sometimes produced themselves unannounced with their paint long worn away by tyres, sun and rain, and camouflaged in trail dust. I’d become wary of villages long ago as they almost guaranteed speed humps.

La Guardia hosted my junction to turn left toward Porongo, which happened to be the unsigned street thirty metres ahead of me from where I had stopped to check the maps.me satnav app. Perfecto.

Porongo to La Guardia FordSurprise! The river crossing wasn’t what I imagined… no bridge. A wide ford across a shallow river over a rust-coloured sandy bed. The water flowed at a good jogging pace and the ripples suggested depths over knee deep. The distance across must have been at least a hundred metres and the chances of a deep channel along the way were greater than I was willing to risk with my laptop in the bags, phone in my pocket and my low slung exhaust pipe about a 30cm off the ground.

One of the things on my wishlist for buying a motorcycle was a high exhaust and air intake. In reality, even if I had that I still wouldn’t cross. Among all else, I didn’t want to get my feet wet.

Examining the map more closely, I could see the roads were coloured slightly duller on the handful of river crossings all the way down the river toward a single bridge, the Puente del Urubo, that linked Urubo to Santa Cruz. Porongo was less than 10km from where I sat on the river bank. I hung a U-turn and rejoined route 7, 25km to Santa Cruz. I’d get to see the city centre sooner than planned.

As is the way of cities, the traffic got heavier and slower the closer I got to the centre. Suddenly, a barricade of plastic drums across the road. I could see the dual carriageway continue toward the centre but all the minibuses were looping back to one of the inner ring roads. This time it was no blockade. It appeared to be a makeshift pedestrianised zone. Traffic lights were here managing the flow from the side street near the hairpin and the buses were looping and jostling across the outbound traffic to get to an extended bus stop parade. Obviously, there is no clue of this on the app and I picked up the diversion on one of the middle ring roads.

Santa Cruz de la Sierra Map, BoliviaIf you imagine the city’s road plan as a giant spider web of four concentric rings, and spokes radiating out from the centre, that’s roughly it with grid sections cut and pasted here and there. The result is, the longer you stay on a road, the less likely you are of knowing where you are and which direction you are facing. The Sun had moved my shadow from left to right. Stopping to check the map, I found I’d gone from the 9 o’clock position to the 4 o’ clock position already. I was travelling anticlockwise around the second to inner road and wanted to turn left across the traffic. Junction after junction was signed “no left turn” and I gave up trying to see the centre and, instead, aimed for the bridge back at about the 10 o’clock position to Santa Cruz. I was tired of the urban battle with the taxis and buses, it was getting late and I hadn’t yet established my campsite.

I guessed correctly, between the thickening traffic, the anonymous-looking, unsigned turning to the bridge and had joyfully overcome the mighty shallows of the Rio Pirai. Legend has it that the bridge was built privately by an Santa Cruz Bridge to Uruboentrepreneur who set up toll gates to recoupe the ten million US dollars he had invested. Apparently, the government told him he couldn’t do that and the crossing had to be free of charge. As a result, the man killed himself and the remains of the toll gates lay inactive, becoming his personal tragic memorial each time I passed. Even more bizarre is the number of government tollgates along the half-built highways across Bolivia. The logic of Latin bureaucracy eludes me…

Another confident route mapped out on the maps.me app took me on a cross-country scar between gigantic commercial sites along a rutted grassland strip, littered with tyres and fly-tipped rubbish. But from then on it was plain sailing along a smooth white concrete ribbon into Porongo.

Morgante boasted Italian food on iOverlander and the only clue to its location in this physical world was a wooden ‘Pizza’ sign hanging near the gate. In this respect, Maps.me had the location pinpointed. The owner’s name was Giulio but he wasn’t there. His landlord was though, harvesting tangerines from the orchard shading the site from the sun. Jose, the landlord, knew nothing of Morgante and could not understand my poor Spanish but he recognised Giulio’s name in the iOverlander app I was waving around in sign language. and he gave him a call.

Giulio explained he was closed due to recent heavy rain and wasn’t taking guests. My fuel gauge was now nudging empty from the unexpected extra mileage. I explained I only wanted to pitch a tent and then was happy to let me stay, for free. One of the attractions here was WiFi but there was none.

Porongo Tangarines, Morgante Nature and FoodToday was meant to be an easy jaunt but turned out to be an unexpectedly tough battle on unfamiliar city web of streets with unpredictable traffic, with a 60km detour that took my fuel gauge down to E. I selected a flat area beneath the tangerine trees to put up the tent. The sun was somewhere near the horizon, out of sight behind the tree-tops and I was glad I didn’t have to search for another campsite using what was left of the day and my fuel.

Morgante Nature and Food, Porongo

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The Circus Hippies of Samaipata

Samaipata morningsTHE MORNING BROUGHT the eastern sun to project the shadow of the bike on the tent wall and I was gently warmed out of my sleeping bag. The night had been chilly but nowhere near as cold as the Altiplano. I drank water but ate no breakfast then decamped at leisure, making sure I left nothing hidden in the leafy undergrowth and hit the road shortly before ten. I only made a hundred km yesterday an I had two hundred and fifty to do today to make Samaipata. It could well mean another night out in the sticks.

There’s a dilemma with catching up a slower bus or truck. Either hang back out of the rooster tail dust cloud being whipped up where rubber meets dust or plunge right in and hope there is an overtaking opportunity pronto. There was a good mix of asphalt and dirt track between the intermittent road works so hanging back until the surfaced roads was my adopted strategy, confining dust between sweaty-neck and laundered collar.

Motorcycling BoliviaI made good progress and my lengthening shadow led the way into Samaipata shortly before sunset. El Jardin is its name: the camp-ground recommended by Marwa at Samay. She said it was up the hill from Jaguar Azul, which is 0ne possible description of where I was, looking at the map for its location. A guy on a motorbike pulled alongside and spoke some Spanish and I recognised the words Jaguar Azul. “No, El Jardin,” I replied. He thought for a minute and indicated to follow him and so was led to the gate of El Jardin Hostel.

El Jardin Hostel, SamaipataEl Jardin has a rustic self-sufficiency feel about it. Cobb walls with bottles inset to make multicoloured windows. The young volunteer booked me in for two nights and introduced herself. “That’s a nice name. Easy to remember” I said, and forgot what it was by the next morning. It wasn’t a problem as I never saw her again.
The crazy-paved steps, strategically spaced for giants of a 97cm stride, led down to the dorms and the lawn where half a dozen tents were already pitched. An assortment of dreadlocked circus hippies were juggling and warbling along to a El Jardin Campsite, Samaipata, Boliviaguitar. I picked a spot as far to the end of the lawn as possible not noticing that the French couple next to me had a dog that would favour laying in the shade of my tent during the day and chew a bone not far from my ears in the middle of the night. “Bonjour,” I said as I was pitching the tent. After a glance at me for a second, they turned away, silent.

The campground nestles in a small valley with a dirt track curling around the north and east perimeter as it fords the stream that also runs through the site then over the track. The incline meant that all the plentiful motorcycles that passed in the night would open up their throttles to climb the hill and give us the benefit of their musical engine notes.

In the peaceful interludes, chirrups of treefrogs and croaking from bullfrogs sang me to sleep, accompanied by random percussive dog-tooth on bone rhythm.

Rain woke me up at dawn. I emerged from the tent to a damp cheerless grey sky, reminiscent of a British October. The intermittent showers and the unbroken clouds kept the blanket of gloom throughout the day.

England v ColombiaSamaipata is about the same size as Coroico but has readily available WiFi – and is without the steep streets. Breakfast at La Chakana on the main plaza quickly became my regular treat. Round the corner at Tierra Libre, they were showing the World Cup games. Tomorrow would be England v Colombia. Normally, they are closed Tuesdays but the wife of the owner is Colombian and they would be opening for the match.

13:55pm the next day, and Tierra Libre’s doors still sports its big brass padlock. Across the road is Gyros bar and nightclub. I can hear the sports commentary booming through the half-open doors at a volume that creates a pressure wave to prevent entry. A minute later, the owner and his family turn up and the Colombia supporters milling around the street, and me, gravitate toward the opened door and jostle around the restaurant to face the screen.

A tall European man introduces himself to me. His name’s Bert from Holland who married a Bolivian woman and opened the Serena hostel up the lane from El Jardin. He invites me to drop in for a cup of tea.

El Jardin Hostel, SamaipataThe circus hippies at the El Jardin are as warm and welcoming as a fish pond in February. I approach a Woman wearing a floral dress sitting in a deckchair slurping soup from a spoon and attempt to break the ice. “Hi, where are you from?” She turns to face me. The face is in its late forties or late fifties with a cotton pad taped over one eye and answers in a deep German accent “Where are any of us from?” and I notice the two or three-day stubble on his/her face. The question was intended as an introduction: an extended greeting, not an existential inquiry. I wish him/her Bon appetite and climb the oversize crazy paved steps in suitably long strides towards La Chakana.

A warm and bright afternoon becomes the perfect opportunity for a ride out to the Ruinas del Fuerte, an ancient fort on a hill about 10km away. I turn off the main road and begin the winding ascent into the hills and the bike jerks as I’m leaning into a left-hand hairpin and I lose drive. It felt like I’d leaned over with the side stand down but I’d been around too many bends already for that to be a possibility. No drive, I coasted to a halt then glanced at the rear sprocket. The chain had come off but appeared to still be connected to the concealed drive sprocket and so was easy to put back on. I adjusted the tension to the full extent of its travel. It’s time for replacement really but I’ll run it a bit longer and squeeze some more life out of it.

The time was 3.30 by the time I got to the fort. The ticket seller checked her watch as I made the purchase and I guessed I still had time to wander around the circuit. Two men were playing cards and one asks if I need a guide. I said no. Mini-Machu Pichu, someone described it. Not how I would describe it though. The treasure of this place is in its history. I guess I needed a guide. Deb would have loved this. Ideal National Trust territory, but without the drizzle…

The Gates at El Jardin Hostel, Samaipata, BoliviaI get back and book a third night at Samaipata and feel it’s enough, I’m done and I’m happy to leave the circus hippies in the garden. One more breakfast at La Chakana with the loaded bike parked where I can see it from my table and then ride to Hostel Serena for the promised tea. I meet Bert coming down the lane on his 250 motorcycle and he tells me to let myself in at Samaipata Cafehis hostel, he’ll only be 15 minutes. Hostel Serena is an immaculate place with views over the Samaipata rooftops. Camping here costs twice El Jardin but includes breakfast. Adding El Jardin to La Chakana brings it on a par… The place feels like a retreat for unwinding. I was tempted to stay but reluctant to unpack the bike again and so I stuck with my plan toward Las Cuevas on the way to Santa Cruz.

Samaipata town, Bolivia

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Cochabamba Days…

Samay Hostel, CochabambaTHE SAMAY HOSTEL bustles with young twenty-somethings and me. I have the last available bunk in an eight-bed dorm. The bed is wide and covered sheets and one thin bedspread. Warm enough for the climate and light on my body, so comfortable, that the next morning, I book another 3 nights.

Cochabamba is a city with a population of over six hundred thousand but with a small town feel. The days are sunny and warm exceeding the mid-twenties, a good ten Celsius above La Paz. It feels good to be out of a coat and in t-shirt once again, it’s been a while…

Giselle is a young Brazilian volunteer at Samay, keen to learn English, which makes it easy for me booking in. Marwa is half German and Egyptian and volunteering at Samay. Nico is Argentinian, has a Suzuki 125 and is also a volunteer.

I mistake the owner, Denise, as a guest. She’s mid-twenties and beautiful and trusts her volunteers to run the place enough that she comes and goes at will. Andrea is the cleaner, stocky without being overweight and with my poqueno de Espanol and her little English we communicate economically but with good cheer. Andrea is busy with the donkey work of changing beds and ministering the laundry but finds time to go upstairs to flirt with the muscle-bound builders constructing the house next door, a source of early morning commotion, loud enough to wake the dead – or gap year travellers.

Cristo de la Concordia Monument, CochabamabaUp the hill is the Cristo de la Concordia. A monument to JC himself, a metre taller than the famous monument in Rio de Janiero. The Teleferic up the hill is closed for maintenance with no sign of maintenance activity as I walk past shortly before 5pm and head for the stairs up the hillside to catch the sunset.

Cristo de la Concordia Teleferic StationThe sun maybe above the horizon but is already behind a hill in the distance. I climb the stairs rapidly to see if I can catch it but the sun is sinking faster than I am rising and I stop to catch my breath. The climb takes about thirty minutes and is a fair workout for the legs and cardio system. With the cable car out of action, there are no elderly or infirm visitors here but a good smattering of families and couples taking pictures and admiring the cityscape light up through the balmy dusk.

Cochabamba from the Cristo de la ConcordiaDarkness falls before I descend and I quietly tread the steps down through the chirp of tropical treefrogs and crickets. Dark but not cold feels like a dream after La Paz: like it shouldn’t be possible in reality. No-one is around between the descent and arriving at the hostel.

Later in the week, a young couple staying at the hostel, descending the Cristo stairs in the dark were robbed at gunpoint. They were more shocked than physically hurt… fortune, good and bad, finds us all along our path from cradle to grave.

Recoleta Barbers, CochabambaWill, an English Ski instructor who works 6 months and takes 6 months off, on his mission to make it a full 12 months, a year is in the bunk below me. Directs me to useful shops and cafes within walking distance and recommends a barber that gives a good straight shave. I’ve never had one before so I head there first thing in the morning. I arrive less than a minute before the young latin owner turns up to raise the anonymous-looking matt black shutters revealing what looks like an immaculate looking fifties style film set of a barber shop.

I recline in the chair and feel the warmth of the street wafting through the open storefront. The barber is young, maybe 25 with short black hair and golden skin, smartly presented and looking professional. The blade intimidates as it approaches my throat and the theme tune to the Sweeney pops out of my memory banks in a tenuous association with cutthroat barbers.

The blade doesn’t feel how I expect. It feels like a wallpaper scraper peeling ancient emulsioned woodchip off my face. A small nick under my lip makes me flinch a little but I pretend not to notice. This is the ‘man’s’ version of a pampering I suppose. The experience did feel good, and the result was a surprisingly smooth face plus feeling special for half a day.

World Cup Room, Samay HostelOver the next 10 days. I enjoy Marwa’s breakfasts and getting to know some of the travellers that pass through the hostel and following the World Cup qualifiers and the Argentina France match in the initial knock out stages with two Argentines and two French people.

Game of Thrones CafeOut and about revealed the opulent Recoleta area, with the gem of a ‘Game of Thrones’ themed cafe named the Coffee of Westeros.

Half an hour walk south of the hostel, the steel corrugated roofs of the Mercado La Pampa basque in the sunshine, beneath which resemble one of the hidden worlds from a Clive Barker novel – narrow passages lined with hidden treasures, magical potions and cheap tat. The longer I stayed, the harder it was to leave: either the hostel to roam the city, or the city to explore the rest of South America. It took a decision, a line in the sands of time, once crossed, no going back.

Samay Hostel Cochabamba, Front GardenAnd so, I found myself eastbound on Route 4. After a far too leisurely morning packing and then talking to a German couple that rode in on 150 Hondas from Chile. 3 pm and I was only just exiting Cochabamba with the sun on my back. Glancing over my shoulder the distant Cristo on the hill had his back to me. I didn’t expect him to wave, but still… I could have stayed longer, in fact, I wanted to but I’d hit my Night Out in Cochabambavisa limit in Bolivia in short enough time. 90 days a year, Bolivia allows tourists. 3 months in, 9 months out. I needed to save some time for the return trip… or take 9 months through Braazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina.

3pm. How far could I go? It would get dark in little over three hours.

Motorcycling BoliviaThe warmth of the sun was ebbing away as the shadows were lengthening and I was already feeling the cold whenever the road swept me into the shadow of the mountains. I felt more relaxed having caught the junction to Route 7, no longer worrying about missing it.

Luck was eluding me finding a camping spot between the farmsteads along the way. Exploring a riverside clearing drew an old man with the face the colour and texture of antique saddle bags, one cheek bulging with coca leaves.

“Puerdo el campar aqui?” my memory for the phrase had evaporated 2CDs ago on the audio course. The hombre’s black eyes stared blankly. I might as well have been talking to a llama. Our communications petered out and I mounted the bike hoping to find a less conspicuous place along the road before dark.

Wild Camping, BoliviaFive kilometres down the road, trees on a hilltop. A track leading down to the river between a roadside cemetery and the wooded hill. Turning right of the road thirty metres down the dirt track I veered into a clearing up the hill discovering a Plateau that was level and fairly hidden from the road and the view from the settlements on the surrounded hills.

Wild Camping, BoliviaI took off my orange jacket to make myself less conspicuous while I deployed the silver tent as discreetly as possible. Clouds were brushing the green peaks of the surrounding mountains. A farmer was burning fields further up the mountainside to my Northeast. I could make out a figure in the doorway of their farmhouse. Were they looking at me? No, I was in the shade of the tree and they would be busy with the fire. Dogs were barking in the distance, as they seem to all over South America. A continent of a continuous network of barking.

A dog had been here within a day or so. Its crusty turd holding the interest of local blowflies. I was far enough away to not accidentally tread in it moving around the tent. It would be unlikely anyone would come this way tonight. This place was a natural cul-de-sac. Nobody walked dogs here. Dogs were an independent life form, living within human society without the constraints of its rules, providing a greater level of freedom than that of us humans.

Even so, the Plateau was steep on three sides and the only access was from whence I came. A no through route. The dirt track continued winding around the hill down to the bridge a hundred metres below me and two hundred westward. Another camping possibility but a little more exposed to the eyes of the hills. The track was quiet and I heard two or three motorcycles pass by in the twilight. The main road was close enough to hear the trucks pass but far enough away to not be a disturbance.

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Cochabamba

Caracollo CampI AWOKE AT four unable to get back to sleep for the cold. Not as cold as Titicaca but still not comfortable and the sun was still more than two hours away.

The light came before the warmth. I lie in long enough to reach a comfortable operating temperature. The entrance to the tent faced further south than the sun rose but was just right for the rays to land on my feet. Going by yesterday’s progress, I should be in Cochabamba by three.

I packed away the tent and was on my way by half-past nine, leaving only tiny holes in the compacted earth where the tent pegs were hammered in. Leaving this excavation, I noticed a local man with a traditional sack over his back watching me from the other side. I ignored him and rode out to route 4.

Route 4 was under construction and I swung right onto the smooth new surface away from Corocollo and toward Cochabamba.

I had over half a tank of fuel on the gauge but wanted to top up to be sure of reaching Cochabamba. Instead of returning to Caracollo, there was a fuel station marked 14km down the road outside Caihuasi.

Route 4 is a half completed dual carriageway, one side a scar in the earth busy with construction machinery, the other, pristine slate grey asphalt. I could see no traffic in either direction as I carried my momentum up the earth verge and onto its surface. It felt like I was riding down an airstrip. During the night I heard the almost constant distant roar of trucks passing by but now, nothing.

I’m making good progress in the bright cool morning air. A sign up ahead “Desvio” and I’m diverted onto bare earth and rock. Once again trucks, slowed down by the coarse surface, whip up the Bolivian dust into my face and I pass them as quickly as possible.

Route 4 to CochabambaI pass through Caihuasi and spot the fuel station on the edge of the village on my right. Problem is, the access has been bisected by the carriageway construction. Even if I could cross it, the station is closed and unattended. It would be tight making it to Cochabamba with what my fuel gauge had to offer. It depended on how much up, down, rough, smooth and gear changing would be involved. All I could do was watch what happens along the way.

The flat plains are behind me now and I’m winding around the mountains, no sign of an end to the road construction as I roll on and off asphalt, earth and rock. Eventually, I would be over a thousand meters closer to sea level but if I was already on the descent, it was disguised by long winding ascents and fast sweeping descents.

The journey is an ecological education as I see black billowing diesel fumes belching out of the trucks struggling to climb the mountains and various selections of cans and plastic packaging flying out of bus and truck windows to the side of the road. I decide that the eco-warriors in Europe are onto a losing battle since from what I’ve seen so far, most South Americans just don’t care. The same as I noticed in Egypt and India. Egypt and South America not only have pyramids and sun gods in common, they also have discarded tyres, plastic bags and polluted air and water.

It’s past lunchtime and the fuel gauge is now below a quarter with 90km to go. It’s not looking good unless either I find a fuel station or I crest the mountains and find a long downhill gravity assisted freewheel down into Cochabamba.

At the crest of a hill, buildings line the road set discretely back allowing a generous flat verge. Shacks and ramshackle stalls that constitute a village, of sorts,s and I catch sight of a wooden panel ‘Gas y Deisel.’ No pumps, a simple sign leaning on a wall. I overcome my innate urge to press on and never go back and slowly make a U-turn and cruise a hundred metres back to the shack.

A woman in traditional costume replete with the traditional bowler hat comes out to ask if I want ten litres. No, five I say. Thirty Bob sounds expensive but it’s two per litre less than I paid in El Alto, probably because she ignored checking my licence plate for the international rate and inflated the domestic rate for her own benefit. Fine by me. She disappears behind the shack for a minute returns with a gallon can and a funnel and empties the fuel into my tank. I can relax now, my gauge now creeps to over three quarters as I accelerate out of the village.

I’m over the peaks now as I can see far into the east, the mountain peaks, islands in a hazy white sea as humidity… or smog… and I can see I’m now a lot lower than the snow line on the distant peaks. The air becomes noticeably warmer as the day progresses. The heat of the day is accumulated and reflected around the mountain passes and aided by gradually reducing altitude.

80km/h, downhill leaning the bike over round smooth dusty mountain bends, I’m home and dry and roll through the toll plaza into Suticollo, 35km from Cochabamba. The dual carriageway runs north through the town. Stationary trucks, a queue of unknown length, as I start to filter down the middle. The trucks become less organized and block my way. Doors are open and drivers are missing and I weave on and off the verge. Progress is slow and I notice a gap in the central reservation and pass through to ride down the opposite carriageway. A handful of vehicles pass the other way, southbound and I continue a couple of miles past the queue to another blockade and sit with the motor ticking over considering my plan. To my left is a restaurant, in the shade of the early afternoon sun and I turn off the road, park the bike under a tree and take a table on the patio in front of the restaurant, order some lunch and scroll through the map on my phone…

There is an alternative route across the hills. Retracing my route south to the gas station marked on the map, I take the left turn east into the cobbled street past the houses, under the security barrier, over the railway line and south onto the trail. The oncoming minibuses and trucks throwing up dust clouds confirm I’m on the right track. An impatient Hummer overtakes me and I follow it in the thinnest part of its rooster tail of dust to the turning to the zig-zag up the hillside. The track crests the hill and gently descends the other side. Boulders are strewn across the track from rockfalls down the adjacent hill to the left. Between the boulders are old tyres and trash. The trail appears to double as a refuse site, Household items and tyres, mainly.

Eventually, I emerge in Quillacollo and Maps.me guides me to the main bridge across the river into the town toward route 4 again. Another blockade. Minibuses parked on the bridge unable to cross. A crowd of people in a huddle and boulders rolled across the road. I turn around and continue along the river bank fifty metres to another dirt track. A pedestrian suspension bridge is to my left, maybe a metre and a half wide, wide enough for the bike but blocked by a flock of llamas and their shepherd at the entrance to the bridge. We speak but don’t understand each other and I turn back along the river, past the blockade to an identical pedestrian bridge. This one free of life forms. I ride up the path, up the ramp and over the planks.

A man joins the bridge on the far side and squeezes up to the side and I edge past with a tentative “Gracias”.

At the far side of the bridge is a recreational park. Families are scattered throughout enjoying the swings and roundabouts and I ease the bike down the slope next to the stairs to the bridge and down the assorted steps in the par between me and the road.

Route 4 through Quillocollo is busy but not congested making it fast and furious between traffic lights and I make good progress to Cochabamba. Avenida Heroinas is a different story. Four thirty pm is peak traffic. More traffic on a narrower carriageway. I blend in with the taxis and steadily progress east toward the Cristo de la Concordia, a big white Jesus on the hill, larger than the Rio de Janiero statue, clearly visible in the distance. I was bound for the Samay hostel a block away from the Cristo teleferico. I’d use that as a waypoint.

Five pm and I arrive at Samay cheating the one-way system to get to the front door. It’s been another hard dusty ride, a contrast to yesterday’s long boring, cold stretch along the straight, flat, Andean plateau. Despite the problems today, it was fun looking back. Journeys like this feel like a real achievement.

Cochabamba from the Cristo de la Concordia

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The Heights of El Alto

La Carretera Hostel, La Paz, ColombiaRATTLING ALONG THE cobbles, I had the sun on my back finally riding to Cochabamba. The warm dry morning eased my thoughts about camping out in the chilly nights of the Altiplano and I set my focus on the weaving taxis and buses as I threaded my way through them out of La Paz onto the escalating loop into El Alto.

As usual, the minibuses were jostling for position at the bus stops just beyond the toll gates and I cleverly weaved through to the outside lane only to discover a blockade, diverting the already congested traffic onto route 2 towards Peru.

The La Paz loop. route 3 to El AltoTrapped between the barriers of the dual carriageway, I noticed a coned off gap in the central reservation. Over the other side of the road, a lane filtering off into El Alto was congested by inbound minibuses. Cutting through the cones and past the buses exchanging passengers for pedestrians through their sliding doors, I found myself back on route 1 and the sporadic drag races from traffic light to El Alto, blockadetraffic light. The fuel gauge was nudging ‘E’. With the pressure off battling urban traffic, I could divert my focus to watching for a fuels station.

Refuelling involves the attendant looking at my number plate and, this time, checking my passport in order to fill up. Bolivia has two rates: domestic and international, which is up to three times more expensive for foreigners like me.

Route 3, El Alto, BoliviaPulling out of the Fuel station, heading south on route 1, the urban sprawl was slowly dissolving into flat plains. The air was noticeably cooler as my cruising speed was increasing through the heights of El Alto. With the disappearance of the city suburbs, the plains looked like desert but there was evidence of crops planted in vaguely marked fields. Dry and barren looking, I wondered how anything managed to grow under the radiant, parching sun and the ice-cool moon.

80km/h is the top speed of the Yamaha on a flat road but there’s no hurry to get anywhere. Whatever I do, it will take two days to make the 385km to Cochabamba so I wind back the throttle to the speed starts to drop in order to save fuel over the hours trundling down the straight black ribbon of route 1.

As the hours passed, the stiff knot in my shoulder revisited from being locked in the same position for so long. Rolling my neck and twisting my head from side to side bought me the pain relief I needed for the extra miles before seeing the sign for route 4 to Cochabamba. I had reached Caracollo, just over half way to Cochabamba.

It was early enough, at just gone three, to consider carrying on but I hadn’t eaten all day. Cold and Hungry riding through, three parked coaches in a huge dirt parking lot caught my eye as I approached the bridge, Puente Caracollo, I hung a U-turn over the bridge at the junction with route 4 and pulled into the restaurant next to the dry river bed, parking on a hard standing between the coaches and the restaurant.

The restaurant was a large spartan canteen, L shaped with columns between the red plastic patio furniture. I ordered a chicken sandwich and coke and settled down on a table in a square of sunlight beaming through the window so as to warm up while watching the Russia – Egypt world cup game. Still hungry and cold, I ordered “uno mas, por favor!” just one more…

Checking the map, I had already travelled nearly 200km and I had maybe 3 hours of daylight left, max, and another 185km to go. That would leave me somewhere in the hills overnight.

Carracollo wild camp, BoliviaJust over the river were two hostels: Alojamiento Panamerica and Pension Villa Puente. Too early to turn in and too late to set off. I decided to head to the wild camping spot a few kilometres down the road, apparently next to a giant gravel mound at a quarry. Turning off route 4 onto a farm track and travelling about five hundred metres across the flat featureless landscape, I came across a giant hole in the ground about a hundred and fifty metres long and a hundred metres wide, with a few farm shacks to the eastern edge. I rode around to that side and found nobody there. The place seemed deserted for miles around and the hard flat area surrounding the hole was a perfect pitch and I broke out camp right there with the tent’s entrance estimated to the part of the sky that the sun would rise.

Camping CaracolloThe afternoon was late but the sun was still about an hour off the horizon. The breeze was light but getting colder and I found sanctuary inside the tent – a perfect temperature in which to rest, warmed by the falling sun. Checking the map, I found I was only halfway to the marked wild camping spot. I could still see no mound or quarry. No matter, I would be gone early in the morning. I would stay here.

I lay back on the mattress to read for a while. I hear panting! a dog had approached the rear of the tent and I quickly zipped up the entrance. I had noticed increasing numbers of stray dogs miles away from anywhere, some laying by the side of the road. Some wandering alone, some in packs. There is no guarantee that they are friendly. I stayed quiet and listened for signs of its owner, or the sound of sprinkling on the tent. Nothing…

I was tired after the ride and fell asleep reading the Kindle and awoke in darkness to snuggle down into the sleeping bag.

Sunset, Caracollo, Bolivia

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Adventures in Bureaucracy

Higher Ground Cafe, Calle Tarija, La Paz,FINDING EXCUSES TO stay in La Paz wasn’t difficult. The WiFi drought in Coroico gave me some catching up to do online. The Higher Ground Cafe became a sanctuary of warmth, inspiration and productivity in the daylight hours. Even so, the evening cold was beginning to bother me in the hostel. I would kick off my boots tuck myself under the blankets with the hood up on my coat and either read, write, surf or watch a movie until I was tired enough to sleep.

My hesitancy for departing for Cochabamba was for two reasons. One was that my Aduanas Nacional permit was expiring in a week and the other was that the journey meant a potential night camping out on the bleak, cold, windy Altiplano.

A far easier choice to stay in La Paz one more night, and another, and another…

Mi Teleferico, NaranjaMy SOAT insurance from Peru for the bike had expired and a lead for renewal took me to Calacoto, on the advice of Mark from Higher Ground. I didn’t mind the journey since it was a series of legs along the Teleferico, Orange, White, Sky Blue and Green all the way to the end at Irpawi and a walk towards Los Pinos. If La Paz was a Monopoly board, Los Pinos would probably be in the Dark Blue set at the top end. Strangely, it felt warmer down this end too, the opposite side to the chilly El Alto.

After a fruitless search for the SOAT office, practising my Spanish with bank staff and doormen consoling myself with a cappuccino and chocolate cake, I discovered a helpful guy at a Yamaha dealer. Motorbike sales: he should know. Univida.s.a at Camacho back in the centre of La Paz. I’d go there tomorrow… no rush…

Univida S.A. La PazUnivida s.a. We had communication problems but hammered out some sort of understanding using language going back to the stone age. No international insurance possible for foreign vehicles, although he gave me a piece of paper that looked like cover in Bolivia until December. I’d check with the Embassy, tomorrow… no rush…

British Embassy. I press the buzzer on the gate. “Si?” “Habla Ingles?” “No!” A slight pause, the gate buzzes and I walk through and set off the alarm in the metal detector between the gate and the reception. The alarm is ignored by both British Embassy, La Paz, Boliviame and the security guard. After a conversation mentioning “no comprendo” and “Manchester United” I’m offered the reception phone and speak to an Englishman and get directed to the Vice Consul on the third floor. She calls La Positiva, the Peruvian insurance company, who tells her that I should arrange insurance online and I leave with a URL written on the back of her business card… it doesn’t seem to be a big deal since 30 days SOAT free immunity is granted in Bolivia.

Thursday comes and I attempt to renew the temporary import permit for the bike at Aduana Nacional, La Paz. “No, you have to go to the airport at El Alto.”

Friday comes and I take the Orange then Red Teleferico to El Alto plus a taxi to the airport. Nobody speaks English but I get the message: “You have to renew your tourist visa at immigration.” “Here at the airport?” “No, down in La Paz. Oh and we need to see your bike.”

Mi Teleferico Amarillo Qhana PataI walk three kilometres to the Yellow Teleferico on the rim of El Alto, which gets me closest to the immigration office, and pause for lunch overlooking the cityscape of La Paz. Does it really matter, spending all this time chasing paper? What else would I be doing? It’s all part of the adventure so not worth getting irritated about… these series of unfulfilled expectations. Embrace the uncertainty is what Susan Jeffers says in her book. Why not, let’s call it adventures in bureaucracy?

Migraciones is packed and my spirit sags a little with the prospect of an extended wait. I approach the information counter and the girl says “Renewal, go through that door and turn left.” “Now?” “Yes.” I see the keeper of the rubber stamp and answer a simple question with “Si. Turismo!” and within ten minutes, I’m back on the street with a new thirty-day stamp in the passport.

It’s 4pm by the time I get back to the hostel and wheel the bike out the door and I weave through the taxis and follow the buses pumping out black diesel fumes as they battle gravity on their way up the looping exit of La Paz to El Alto.

There’s no queue at Aduanas Nacional and the agent recognises me “where’s your proof of ownership?” “It’s online only. You go to Sunarp.gob.pe and enter the registration number.” No, not good enough and I get sent to the internet cafe in the airport terminal to print out the ownership details. “Yes, we have internet. No, we can’t print out anything.”

I locate the free WiFi zone and find the Sunarp page on my phone for the ownership details. Bingo, my name appears along with the vehicle details and I return, screen still illuminated, to explain to the agent the restriction in printing.

He’s not happy. I ask if we could use his pc to access the details to print. He thinks I want to come into his office to do it and says “No, cameras…”

I zoom in on the details still on the phone’s screen and show him and he takes out his phone to photograph my screen. That seems to solve that problem. The sun is setting and we’re at the bike looking for frame and engine numbers. Rubbing away the Bolivian dust reveals this hidden treasure and the agent’s phone comes out again taking a picture in the failing light and we return to the office.

Whatever the process is now, with the full set of criteria now satisfied, it takes an age for the agent at the keyboard to spew out a document. I sign three copies and I’m free with thirty days leave in my hand.

Starting the bike outside the office, the sun has long gone and twilight is melting into darkness. Darkness and peak traffic are situations I actively try to avoid. Peak traffic in El Alto means stationary traffic and drivers leaning on horns. I should turn left but only the right turn has space to move so I turn right and then left across the traffic line into the bustling backstreets. Filtering my way between taxis and buses, I eventually make the toll gates that mark the loop down to La Paz.

An hour from leaving the airport, I power the bike up the kerb and hostel step into the central hallway.

Two days to get ‘legal’ for the next thirty days. I deserved a hot meal and walked around the corner for an empanada, now able to relax together with the freedom to think how I was going to spend the next thirty days in Bolivia.

I would set off to Cochabamba Monday and spend this weekend in La Paz.

Monday arrived and I couldn’t face packing, it was already getting late and I was still cold from waking up. Instead, I stayed in bed all day, warm under the blankets, communicating online. I would go tomorrow, Tuesday.

Carretero Hostel, La PazTuesday came and I didn’t really feel like getting up and packing. I didn’t really feel like doing anything else either, so I stopped thinking about it and got up, showered under lukewarm water in the cold air, packed and stacked the bike ready to go.

Gabriella was on the second-floor balcony cleaning the floors and I went upstairs to give her a goodbye hug. On the way down I met my German neighbour, Jorg Berger, who writes a blog at www.http://wiedervoll.de/. We hadn’t really talked before but he was fascinated by the freshly packed bike. We shared notes about being chased by dogs and how to deal with them before I finally squeezed the bulging panniers through the hostel door and rode out into the cobbled streets of La Paz. I was on my way…

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