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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


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.



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


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…


The South Yungas Road

El Gecko campingBREAKFAST AND LOADING up the bike in the morning, I say my final farewells to Luis and Fernando, fine hosts who I’ll miss. Fernando seems to think I can make the hill up to the town, but I’m still doubtful. I roll down the hill to get a run up the steep cobbles. Keeping the revs up I’m fast across the rough surface and the bike attacks the base of the incline and jumps around the oversize cobbles up the hill. I’m standing on the footpegs fully committed now. Stopping would be a disaster and end in a El Gecko camping.certain spill at this incline on this surface. Barking dogs start the chase but give up about twenty metres later with the bike leaping over the boulder-sized cobbles. the engine note starts to wane but all I can do is hang on for the ride holding the throttle fully open. And I make the top with momentum and revs to spare. Reaching the El Gecko Hosteljunction at the top of the hill, I’m carrying on whatever ‘s coming. Parked cars were all there were. There was no round of applause from the onlookers watching me bounding up to the junction, but I got the impression that not many fully loaded 125s are seen taking this particular route and I cruised around the corner without bothering to stop.

On the outskirts of Coroico, the road degrades from block paving to dirt and the pale yellow dust rises into the warm dry air.

South Yungas RoadThe gloves are off; partly for the challenge of offroading across Bolivia and partly because my hands are warm. My jacket is packed away and I wear combat trousers and cotton top to enjoy the warm dry weather while I have it.

The traffic is light compared to European standards, mainly minibuses with a few large trucks tearing up billowing plumes of dust. I stop and get my head face down on the bike’s fuel tank until it passes and what breeze there is carries the cloud away.

I’m on route 40 that intersects the South Yungas Road, route 25. On the map, it’s a bright yellow wiggle joining Cochabamba to La Paz. Back home, this would imply a major route, paved. Not here. Gravel, rock, sand and dust is the order of the day.

South Yungas RoadThe track is often wide but sometimes narrows as it winds its way around the contours of the mountains, not as high as the North Yungas Road but every bit as dangerous. Speed humps are camouflaged by the dust in the villages but I’ve come to expect them and slow as a matter of course. Chickens scatter between the huts and lazy dogs lift their heads and sometimes move out of the way, sometimes not, as I drift by either side.

Puente Villa, South YungasEventually, I cross the bridge to Puente Villa. Despite Luis’ assurances that it is a good road to Cochabamba, there is no indication that it improves any past Puente Villa. I’m not certain Luis has even seen a paved road. I’m already beige with trail dust and taking half a day to travel fifty kilometres could mean taking a dirty and gruelling week to Cochabamba. I hang a U-turn and cross the bridge to pick up the westbound South Yungas road towards La Paz.

A loose and dusty surface, the South Yungas road, slightly smoother with more traffic, otherwise similar to route 40 to Puente Villa. The closer to La Paz I get, the more the surface changes. Asphalt, block paving and cobbles introduce themselves at random intervals. Picking up the speed and leaning round the bends into the descending sun had me hopeful I would be back at the hostel in La Paz before dusk. Grey scars down the side of the mountains had the valley looking like a quarry. There had been some severe landslides here and plant machinery was busy clearing the way.

Three workmen in the back of a pickup called out as I pass. Often I continue but this sounded important. The way ahead was blocked and they pointed up a steep freshly dug dirt track that zigzagged up the mountainside. A red pickup came bouncing down the track and around the corner, disappearing from where I came. I had noticed this track on the way past but didn’t take it seriously as a road. It looked like a farm entrance.

South YungasThe earth was red and loose with large rocks scattered along its surface. I had to keep the revs high to stay in the power band in order to climb the hill. Jumping and bucking over the rough ground, I made the first couple of slopes but, on the third slope, the engine bogged down on the steepest section at the top of the third slope. I stepped off the bike and left it resting for a few minutes to cool down. A minibus came bouncing down around the bend and rocked its way down around the last bend I managed and disappeared into the valley. Looking up, I could see where the bends were dug away. There were at least another four more, as the road climbed like a ladder up the mountain.

YungasOptions from here? forty-five kilometres back to Puente Villa, one hundred back to Coroico, five hundred to Cochabamba. The Coroico route was the only other to La Paz and it had already taken most of the day to get here. It would be dark soon. There was no other choice: this dirt ladder or nothing. After a brief rest and more contemplation, I fired up the bike and did the same as I did in La Paz. Used the engine as well as push at the same time to get the bike up to the apex of the bend. It’s a difficult skill to regulate either the revs or the bike speed without dropping it but I was getting the hang of it. I felt better past that steep section and on the more level ground at the outer apex of the bend and I rested and stopped to think a bit more.

A red minibus came bouncing up the hill and swung round the bend on full lock blocked by my parked bike and was forced to stop. Shrugging and complaining at me, I shrugged back. I started the bike and moved it another metre and a half. The minibus’s wheels span in the earth unable to climb any further, forcing it to reverse down the slope for another run-up and off he bounced around the corner, missing the bike by half a metre and bounding up the hill, only to see him reverse back down again followed by a convoy of four minibuses coming down the other way.

I decided to take off up the hill before he came back. Mounting up and taking a run up on the corner, I leapt up the incline. I’d worked out if I made it to the outer edge of the bend the slope was less severe for the turn and I had more room to gain momentum for attacking the next incline. When the engine started getting bogged down I’d quickly dip the clutch to spin the engine up and let it out again, popping small wheelies over the rubble before losing momentum and balance. I only had to get off one more time to push and, mounting up once more, I shot out from the last incline onto an established track that seemed parallel to the South Yungas road at a higher level. Or it could have been another section of the South Yungas that looped back to join route three, not far away.

Less than three hundred metres to the smooth black surface of route three. The sun was now dipping behind the rim of the mountains and I sped as fast as I could toward La Paz, which was 45km/h uphill to Le Cumbre.  The chill of the mountains was getting to me and I stopped at the roadside to unpack my jacket before reaching the cloud base.

Clicking between the gears, I was able to maintain 45km/h as I followed the road up into the clouds, each hairpin revealing headlamps descending out of the mist. Eventually, the road began to level off and the clouds began to clear before the descent into La Paz. The traffic was building as I was nearing La Paz but the sky seemed brighter although the sun had already set.

In the fading light, the city lights lit up the far slopes of the canyon and the potholes became harder to pick out of the streets. I followed the bobbing tail lamps of the busses and taxis. I fight my way through the gladiatorial taxis street by street, checking the route every few minutes until reaching the hostel. I drop my helmet into reception and power the bike up over the step and through the doors into the lobby.

Carretero Hostel, La PazGabby the receptionist welcomed me back and said “Your face, es negro.” I just said “Si, South Yungas Road…” Gabby nodded politely and gave me the same room I had before and I dragged my bags up and washed before going out to refuel on empanadas and a coke.

The day had been hard going right from the off. Slow, dry and hot through clouds of dust, battle against gravity and mountain cold, fighting city traffic in darkness squinting through dirty glasses and visor.

The uncertainty of it all wasn’t fun at the time but looking back on it at dinner, it was. Especially as my hands had warmed up and the memory of the damp, cold mountain air was now history.


El Camino de la Muerte

El Camino de la MuerteAS THE TYRES left the smooth black asphalt of route 3 and crunched the gravel of El Camino de la Muerte, first impressions were that it was very similar to the Santa Teresa road in Peru, only higher and strikingly more beautiful. At a height of up to 800 metres (2000ft) above the river in the jungle below the mountains, it was a gut-churning experience seeing the road and mountain rush pass in relation to my motion and the distant jungle floor, being so far away, appearing to not move at all.

North Yungas RoadThe cloud was left far behind, clinging to the peak near the start of the road and I was warmed by the sun as I slowly descended. The road weaved in and out of the mountains, some edges having crumbled away revealing the vertical landscape. Cooling splashes from waterfalls that landed over the road and continued along and over the edges. So beautiful is the scenery that it distracts your gaze. With the road at as narrow as three metres in places, distraction wasn’t wise, with death a metre or two away.

El Camino de la Muerte Some way down the road, I was stopped at a toll gate, You pay to get in these days. like a fairground ride except you bring your own equipment. Further down: traffic. a tour group on mountain bikes, lycra clad adventurers on a briefing watched me and my luggage idle by and out of sight.

Reaching the second toll gate near the end, and a big wooden sign celebrating the monumental road gives the impression that the danger is over. It’s not really, there are still shear drops off the side of the road all the way on down to Yolosa just before and below Coroico. What’s more, the road surface turns from coarse rock and stone to fine sandy powder and dust. The front wheel feels the urge to move sideways away from the weight of the bike. Steering beyond a few degrees has diminishing effect and has to be slight and smooth as well as gently leaning around the bends.El Camino de la Muerte

The temperature had risen steadily as my altitude dropped along the road and I was now sweating under the same jacket that was keeping the chills away only a couple of hours earlier.

Now climbing the cobbles into the mountain village of Coroico, the bike had noticeably more power now as it was catching its breath. Through the bustling Coroico, North YungasPlaza and down the steep cobbles the other side, brought me to the gate of the El Gecko campsite. A family-run hostel and campsite with stunning views over the valley at the end of El Camino de la Muerte, North Yungas.

My tent was erected on the edge of the lawn overlooking the mountains. Warm weather, sand flies and mosquitos. You can’t seem to have everything. Pinpoint spots of blood on my arms revealed the presence of near invisible sandflies. Tomorrow, forty-eight hours of incessant itching would begin… I don’t know how that works, but I cover up from now on.

Coleman Rainforest 2Once base camp on the lawn was established. I collected my laptop and notepads together in a satchel and set about climbing the cobbles to the village. It wasn’t too far but still arduous. At 1700 metres, the altitude was noticeably easier to on the lungs compared to Titicaca or La Paz. I was out of breath but I could still carry on climbing.

Coroico is a beautiful little mountain village. Plenty of accommodation, cafes and restaurants but hardly any wifi, or even places with a spare socket for recharging. The opportunity to write, edit videos, blog and even read with the kindle app disappeared with the slow death of the battery charge.

“Free Wifi,” says the sign in the Cafe window and I order a coffee and sandwich. “No, senor, no WiFi.” Ah well, look out of the window then. Wifi in Coroico seems to be a marketing ploy rather than a technology. Time is yet to catch up with Coroico.

Coroico is the ideal honeymoon spot really since there’s nothing much else to do. There’s not much to do at the campsite either, so I walk to the church on the hill above Coroico and back. Hot and dusty, I sip water and rest in shade and explore possible escape routes for the bike should it not make it back up the steep cobbled street from El Gecko to route 40 through the middle of town.

Coroico PlazaI’d left my phone with Fernando to charge. I’d be glad of that later: no book, no light, no wifi or PC. I’d look forward to reading the Kindle. My equipment list needs some tweaking to accommodate ‘vida sin electricidad.’ A quartet of young French travellers had arrived and pitched their tents not far from mine. “Bonjour!” I call. They turn… nothing and they look away. What am I invisible? They stick amongst themselves and we share the campsite as separate factions. Me in my group of one and them in their group of four.

El Gecko HostelAfter dinner around the Plaza, I return to El Gecko about an hour after sunset. The French quartet are socialising around the table about fifteen feet from my tent. I secretly hope they aren’t going to be long, or loud, and I retrieve the phone from Fernando and retreat to the tent with my Kindle app, tucked up in my sleeping bag reading against the gentle murmur of muted conversation and laughter.

I check the map on the phone for tomorrow. I could not see the value for me staying another day in Coroico. Route 40 from here intersects route 25 and wiggles its way nearly five hundred kilometres to Cochabamba. I could head there tomorrow. In any case, I have to cross the river at Puente Villa fifty kilometres away first. A good opportunity to assess the state of the road before deciding whether to commit east to Cochabamba or west to La Paz. Where the faster roads are… Meanwhile, I bundle the blankets into a pillow and settle down into the sleeping bag to the lullaby of crickets, frogs and distant dogs…


Escape From La Paz

La PazThe pure blue sky of La Paz hides a secret spring-like climate behind its weather statistics. On paper, the temperature and rainfall averages look similar to the UK. In reality, the brighter sun, clearer skies and lower humidity provide a radiant heat easier to contain beneath clothing.

Plaza Murillo, La Paz, BoliviaPlaza Murillo holds the seat of government and a bird feeding station. It’s thick with police, military guards and pigeons. The University staff with their shockingly loud fireworks for protesting for higher wages have intensified the police presence without doing anything about thinning out the pigeons. I have to find my way around this inconvenient obstruction. Mostly, the demos have been peaceful but the longer they continue, the more fractious they get.

Mi Teleferico Amarillo Qhana PataA real gem of La Paz is the ‘Mi Telferico’ Cable car system. There appears to be no practical map available for the system and how it all links together to be able to explore the city. By trial and error, I spend the day moving from one line to another until the whole system has been explored and I have an overview of how the city is covered.

The colour coded cars take you from the heights of El Alto along the canyon of La Paz to Irpavi and across the gorge from one edge to the other. It’s the best way to see the city.

Over the next 5 days, I explore La Paz and take advantage of the relatively fast WiFi at the hostel, reading, writing, studying life; that sort of thing.

Higher Ground Cafe, Calle Tarija, La Paz,Don at the El Condor and the Eagle in Copacabana gave me a tip to find Higher Ground Cafe. I find it easily enough: down Calle Tarija, just up from the purple Teleferico station that’s unfortunately not yet finished construction. Still, it’s not too far to walk down the hill from the hostel. Just harder getting back.

Calle Tarija is the next street to Gringo Alley (Sagarnaga) and off Linares. It means there are lots of English speaking tourists flocking together. The owner, Mark, is an affable Aussie and his cafe makes for a good place where I can pretend to be a Digital Nomad, a worker from cyberspace.

Gringo Alley: Streets of alpaca-wear stores and fake asian North Face outlets. European coffee drinkers, recharging iPhones, absorbed in the WiFi universe.

I check out some likely locations online to pick up a real paper book -in English- for when Kindle runs out of power. “Spitting Llama,” on Linares just around the corner: now a tour company with cafe. “No Senor, closed maybe two or three years ago.” Another address at 1315 Calle Mercado. Steel shutters. Shrugs from neighbours. Not the first time I find expired businesses still experiencing a zombie life on the world wide web. I give up the search and settle for a coffee.

“El Camino de la Muerte.” A poster of young adventures on mountain bikes. “The worlds most dangerous road,” the poster boasts, at odds with the holiday vibe of the poster.

Wednesday 30th May
Death Road, Groves Road, North Yungas Road, El Camino de la Muerte… the road of many names…

Yes, I was nervous. I don’t like heights…

Since entering my awareness, Bolivia’s ‘Death Road’ had become impossible to ignore: something I could not just ‘not do.’ Like going to Paris and not visiting the Eiffel tower, or going to Cusco and ignoring Machu Picchu. Besides, I had also read that Coroico is at the end of that road at an elevation of 1700 metres. At this latitude, that means warm weather, a summer break from the spring-like chills of the ‘city in the sky.’ All less than a hundred kilometres away.

El Carretero Hostel, Catacora, La PazI loaded up the bike and squeezed its swollen bags through the Hostel doors onto the pale sunlit cobbles on the lane outside. Checking the map, it’s simply a right turn at the crossroads and straight on over the hill to route 3. The cobbled road was steep and the bike steadily rumbled its way upwards before reaching the smooth bleached concrete slopes that became so steep that the bike could no longer grunt its way another inch.

I put my feet down squeezing the clutch front brake: not enough traction to hold the bike on the hill on the front wheel alone and slid backwards until I let the clutch out to stall the engine and lock the rear wheel. Steering and propping the back wheel against the curb, I stepped off the bike and started the engine using it to power while I pushed the bike up the hill, collapsing at the next corner to calm my racing heart and suck some oxygen out of the thin air at the corner in a driveway. I’d only gone about 20 metres and round the corner was another 30 metres, just as steep. Beyond that, I could only guess from the angle of the roof gables of the houses continuing up the slope.

I sat panting on the curb watching the cars revving their nuts off and honking at the corners warning of their commitment to their ascent. There was no way I was going to make it to the top with this gearing or engine size in this atmosphere. I’d have to retreat to the main road and head east to where the orange routes were painting themselves on the screen of the sat nav. The big trucks that make it into this basin city have to escape somehow. I’d find out where.

La Paz, BoliviaTurning the bike around and rolling downhill on brakes and low gear was easier but no less dangerous. The white concrete was smooth and with barely enough grip. Stopping would be a challenge and my prayers for no traffic were answered, at least until the cobbles where the slope eased off to manageable levels,

Continuing the wrong way down the one-way street was an uneventful but useful shortcut, as was turning into the traffic without any clues from the rear of the traffic lights. The other road users didn’t seem to mind and there were no honks of judgement or rebuke and I turned to go with the flow of the minibuses along Calle Sucre.

Using the direction of the sun as my guide brought me halfway out of La Paz on Route 3 before having to stop and check with the sat nav. The outward bound traffic was thinning. It felt like whoever travels to La Paz stays in La Paz.

Illumani, La Paz, BoliviaAt the city limits, there was me, a coach and two heavy trucks belching black smoke against the force of gravity; all making our way out of La Paz’s bowl in the sky, from 3700 metres uphill toward La Cumbre Pass at 4600 metres. There was little power available for overtaking and a maximum speed of 40km/h but I took advantage of the unnecessary outward bound speed humps and potholes to maintain my speed by standing on the footpegs to roll over the obstacles and get ahead to breathe diesel free mountain air, while the trucks were forced to slow for the speed humps.

The weather was clear and dry with a few wispy clouds wafting over the mountain peaks and tumbling down the mountainside into the valley below. But it was becoming noticeably cooler the higher I got and I was glad of the suns rays for its radiance.

The bleak mountains and stark jagged rocks sheltered the ice in the shade with a hint of tentative plant life clinging for its life onto any surface. 40Kmh, clicking down the gears to try and make some progress only saw the suffocating engine cough at six thousand revs searching the rarified air for precious oxygen. Patience was the only remedy. Entering the cloud base, brought a chill familiar to riding in the British winter. An icy dampness that found its fingers between clothes and skin.

Soon, progress slowly levelled out and then downhill. I was over the pass. This side of the peaks, the clouds were tumbling over the peaks and falling below the cloud base and down the mountainsides and across the road.

El Camini de la Muerte, Death Road , BoliviaLess than two miles in the grey foggy mist. There it was, the entrance to the Death Road. Heralded by a tired and solemn-looking information board and a sign instructing traffic to now pass on the left so the drivers are able to see how soon their wheels will be going over the edge.

I propped the bike on its side stand and walked to the edge of the junction to look down the sunlit valley at the thin yellow ribbon of road slicing its way through the trees and around the mountainsides into the mountain jungle below and to the east.

Watching the road for a few minutes, I could see zero traffic either direction. The Death Road’s new replacement was here behind me continuing into the grey cloud around the other side of the mountain. I saw no traffic here either.

After a quick drink from the water bottle, I slipped my helmet back on and started rolling down the gravel track known as the most dangerous road in the world…

North Yungas Road, El Camino de la Muerte, Bolivia


La Paz

El Condor and the Eagle Cafe, CopacabanaThe bike started on the first blip of the starter button after 5 days of inactivity and I walked it over the steps under engine power into the street before loading up the bags. One more visit to El Condor and the Eagle Cafe to pass away the morning and I was off to Huatajata on the way to La Paz via the picturesque peninsular track toward Isla Del Sol.

Andes Mountains and Lake TiticacaAs usual, the track was rough to the point of requiring a flagpole to mark a particularly deep pothole. The afternoon, bright, dry and warm with dust hanging in the air stirred up by the balding tyres of long passed taxis.

One wrong turn is all it takes. South to the Tiquina ferry and I find myself at a dead end in a churchyard, dogs barking somewhere in the small roadless village. An unstable U-turn in a rocky garden and half a mile back up the track reveals the junction, half hidden by a bend, that switched back over the peaks and loops south to Tiquina again. Over a dusty crest and the smooth asphalt ribbon of the F2 around the hills to La Paz presents itself for more rapid progress.

The fully loaded 125 can only make 80km/h so I was able to lean the bike around the sweeping bends at full speed. With a good view around the bend, I could use both lanes too. I had to be mindful though, a blowout or something could cause me to slide into the drain one side or over the edge of a cliff the other. With the hill on the right, I’m on the inside track of the curves.

Tequina FerriesTiquina saw fleets of rectangular wooden ferries. Square bow, powered by outboards. Perfectly aligned with the height of the ramps, I follow a taxi and a camper van without having to wait. Three empty ferries patiently drift awaiting the ramp with no traffic behind me. I put the side stand down but stay on the bike to brace against the swell on the lake, as small as it was. Facing the stern I watched On the Tiquina Ferry, Boliviathe ferry flexing with the waves. The strait is narrow, probably half a mile at the most but it took a while, the poor outboards pushing the square bow wave across the channel.

The sun was descending to the west but almost deserted F2 meant I could push on to Huatajata about forty minutes down the road and remain fairly relaxed.

The road is being widened so the surface is new, the main danger being ramps and ridges of new asphalt.

Huatajata HostelMissing the narrow gravel junction to the tiny plaza of Huatajata, I turned back after about half a mile past and found nowhere, not even a campsite. Not only did the plaza appear deserted, it appeared abandoned.

Extending my journey to a hostel on the iOverlander app featuring a reasonable review, found it closed and abandoned. Wild camping was a possibility but all the land along the lake seems to have been claimed by farmers. Private land for miles on end.

The next possibilities were Huarina fourteen kilometres down the road and Batillas the same distance again. Nothing appeared on the maps apps or my field of view diverting through the streets on my way through.

The sun had almost reached the horizon. A half hour and it would be dark. I wanted to avoid riding darkness as much as possible. iOverlander had one hostel marked in Pucarani, another fourteen kilometres south but the map would not load due to no internet connection, iOverlander is not a purely offline map like maps.me but between them, I can divine its location.

The straight bright yellow line on the map between Batillas and Pucarani promised a fast smooth ride but delivered white rock and dust with long straight furrows ploughed by car tyres for thirteen kilometres. No grip and loose uneven surface in fading light made for a treacherous journey. At my top speed of twenty to thirty kph, it would be dark before I arrived. Farms and at fields,fl some waterlogged lined the rail straight trail all the way along. I was noting plan ‘Bs’ all the way. A walled cemetery here some grassland at the side of a bridge there.

Hospedaje with a ‘k’ sound for the ‘j’ is the word for hostel here. No, the locals directed me to the hospital. I was getting uncomfortably cold riding around in the dark and frustrated trying to communicate with the locals. Resigning myself for camping out on the plains somewhere toward the F2, I stopped at a cafe for some food to warm me through the freezing night of the Alti Plano.

“Hospedakhay?” “No!” Finishing my modified vegetarian meal of chicken and rice, the companion of the girl who I spoke to eventually said “Residencia?” and pointed down the road just around the corner from where we were. “Si!” I was saved. A smart looking hostel with secure parking for 30BOB, maybe only 200 metres from where it was marked on the map, but far enough to render it invisible in the terraced streets of Pucarani.

One small wrinkle, check out is 6am…“Seis?” I hold six fingers up to check. The woman says “Si, seis!” and made a sign resembling a tentative nazi salute to indicate I go pronto.”

I awake a couple of minutes before the five twenty-five alarm. Funny how that happens. I had slept in most of my clothes as the night and room was cold. And I was trying to start the bike a few minutes before six. The bike was undercover but it wasn’t a garage. The rooms bridged the garage doors that led to a large garden. Similar to old coaching inns. Still, the bike seemed too cold to fire up. The host came out and unlocked the garage door and I pushed the bike out onto the dark and silent street.

I looked around hopefully for the dawn and saw a shooting star across a hint of a silhouetted horizon. Sunrise would be a while coming yet.

I pushed the bike as far as the restaurant on the main road which was on the side of the hill leading up to the main plaza. Should I need to attempt a jump start, I’d have about 40 metres. I didn’t need it. Full choke and holding the start button and caressing the throttle slightly got the bike to a slow tick over before the battery lost too much power. The engine speed picked up and I reduced the choke over the next few minutes and slowly eased the bike east toward the F2, ten kilometres away.

The air was still but with me moving through it my fingers were quickly losing heat through my gloves and knees losing heat through my trousers. Five kilometres along and I stopped to warm up. Two dogs at nearby houses came out and started barking and nervously edged toward me. I fired the bike up and drove toward the most aggressive one to chase it away with the headlamp beam, which worked only while I was pointing toward it, and it resumed the chase as I realigned to the path of the road. I was just far enough away to gain speed enough to outrun it.

A few kilometres later, speed humps for another urban settlement. Two more dogs came from the right and caught me in second gear. I was still accelerating when the closest one caught my boot. I carried on accelerating until it let go and heard the barking recede behind me.

The sky was brightening by the time I reached the F2. Traffic was light, mainly with minibuses ferrying people to work. I stopped a few times to warm my hands around the exhaust and again for ten minutes, leaning against a wall in the bright pale sun full of light but little heat.

RN 1 El AltoA half-hour later, I was in El Alto. Low sun but now full-beam daylight. Traffic was building and becoming ever more competitive for the diminishing road space. This is what I wanted to avoid by planning to stop in Huatajata, arriving in LaPaz in peak traffic.

El Alto and LaPaz are pretty much one big urban sprawl. El Alto occupies the flat plains at over 4000 metres elevation and the road spills over the lip of the canyon along with the buildings hundreds of metres into a crater-like valley of La Paz. To get to La Paz, I needed route F1.

La Paz from El AltoThe junction to F1 toward La Paz remained undiscovered as I found myself diverted into the Centre of El Alto by traffic flow and one-way signs.I was thrilled, once I had discovered myself actually on the F1 but in the wrong direction. Hanging a U-turn at some traffic lights I was riding into the Sun toward the giant loop that descends the crater that is La Paz.

Carretero HostelThe next mission: to find an affordable hostel that can accommodate a bike. I’d read a few reviews on iOverlander and by chance found myself close to the Carretero, all be it thirty metres the wrong way down a busy one-way street. I parked up and walked to it and found it perfect for my needs. I wasn’t risking losing myself around the one-way system so the next gap in the traffic I rode down the street and powered the bike over the tall step and with a helping push into the lobby.

Carretero Hostel, La PazThe journey from the ferry had been riddled with uncertainty. Cold, dusty, obstructed by the language barrier. It wasn’t fun. In ‘hindsight’ I would have been better off staying on the main route to El Alto and chance my luck with the evening peak traffic.

La Paz Mountains IllimaniNow I was here, I could unwind and look back at the journey from a warm and comfortable perspective. I hadn’t been happy about leaving at six but the side benefit was now it was only ten. I had the whole day to explore La Paz and stepped out into streets now bathed in strong, warm sunshine.


Isla Del Sol

Copacabana Bolivia3AM, Cold enough to wake the Zombie White-walkers of Game of Thrones. The fleece blankets had slipped off the Teflon-slick polyester sleeping bag and needed constant readjustment to maximise heat retention.

The jacket I had been using as a pillow was now donned and zipped up inside the sleeping bag for extra insulation and arms deployed as alternating headrests and switched as they became numb. I dozed on and off listening to the waves gently calm and become quieter in the stillness of the night.

Wild Camping TiticacaI awoke before sunrise, cheered to see the shadow of Senor Yamaha’s front wheel and mudguard cast on the tent wall. If not yet warm, I could feel the morning chill receding. I nestled down for an extra hour or two’s bone-warming sleep.

Titicaca ShoreThis time of year, the night temperature drops to between 2 and -2C. Back in the UK, Everything would be dripping with condensation. Not here, I couldn’t even see the mist of my breath. Everything felt as dry as it had been in the daytime. I squatted at the waterside with my toothbrush, unsteady over cricket ball sized pebbles and football sized boulders. The water was like liquid glass, completely clear, sparkling in the bright Andean sun. It tasted like spring water as I washed and cleaned my teeth on the sunlit beach. I expected the water to be icy cold but it was about the same as the sea in the UK but of course without the salt. Plastic bottles and litter lined the shore, as bad as anywhere I’ve seen here, even along the roadsides. I picked a few bits up, maintaining my policy of leaving a place better than I found it but it made little visual impact.

I wasn’t really hungry so I relaxed around the tent for a couple of hours before packing away and bucking and weaving the bike along the shoreline towards the town in search of a hostel, I’d need my fix of warmth, electricity, and WiFi for catching up on things tonight. Frankly, blogging wasn’t working as a portable income but I still feel compelled to keep it going: a mission independent of finance. It’s work, but not as we know it.

Copacabana TiticacaI rolled into Hostel Gabriel at Avenue 6 de Agosto. Saloman speaks as much English as I speak Spanish and between us we communicate quite well. He gives my bike a helping push up the high kerb and the bike idles into the lobby. The tarrif is 30BOB (£3.36) a night, for a shared room or 40Bop for a private. My shared room up on the first floor has two beds and there is no sign of anyone else here. For my 5 night stay, I have the ‘shared’ room to myself.

There are two issues with camping. One, at this altitude I need an arctic grade sleeping bag. Two, I need a regular source of electricity in order to keep up to date with my reports.

The curtained window in my room faces out to the hall which facilitates the walkway to the other rooms as well as a communal area. Its transparent plastic roof provides a warm area for the day I saw no one else when I was using it. Almost like I had an apartment to myself.

Cerro CalvarioOut front and squinting up at the peak of Cerro Calvario, the crosses of the monuments give the impression of a cemetery: boot hill would be my nickname for it. The short but steep climb takes probably twenty minutes to half an hour up irregular stone steps. The altitude challenges the lungs. The intention is to take some pictures of the sunset over the lake but ignorance of the fact that Bolivia’s time zone is an hour ahead of Peru puts me an hour too early and a leisurely hour and a half is spent at the summit in meditation and contemplation while the sun slowly drags its warmth and light below the horizon.

Down the Avenue toward the lake on the left is a cafe called El Condor and the Eagle. A fascinating Irish cafe run By Don, from Ireland and his Bolivian wife. He makes his own bread which makes for an irresistible breakfast sandwich. Don is full of local information and gives me tips on local bureaucracy, residency, La Paz as well as Isla Del Sol. There is a stack of handwritten notebooks where customers are invited to share their wisdom, experiences, favourite books, poems and song lyrics. It becomes the ideal office for planning the day…

Avenida 6 de AgostoClosing the door behind me entering El Condor and the Eagle, I assume I’m the first customer of the day since they open at 7 and it’s still well before 8. Don, explains a bit about the blockade at the northern part of the island. Which was a blow, as I had planned to land at the north port and hike the ridge path to the south. Not currently possible. Something to do with the inland community not getting a share of the tourist profits. Even so, at the ticket booth at Copacabana harbour, I ask for a ticket to the north. The vendor says nothing and ticks the south box on my ticket and I wander along the wooden jetty to join the queue for the boat.

The wooden ‘bus’ boats are wide, basic and slow, powered by twin outboards. It’s a ninety minute cruise to the island which gets us there shortly after ten. Stepping ashore, a local man collects a 10bob fee in addition to the ticket, just because he can… This is not publicised well but Don had warned me about it.

Yumani Inca StepsThe Isla Del Sol port of Yumani is an area about one hundred metres wide by thirty metres deep between water and Inca Wall. To the right are the Inca steps which lead up to Yumani Pueblo nearly two hundred metres above the lake. I hoick my backpack containing only water bottle and jacket onto one shoulder and stride to the steps. Some young German girls were laden with full touring kit, were occupying the full width of the path bent forward step by slow step and I quickly skipped around them on the steps, as they gasped for scarce oxygen with the effort, and I steadily climbed into the village.

The last sign I spotted was for the path to the north, which I would have been walking down if not for the blockade. I guessed I didn’t want that one now and continued straight on, losing myself in the labyrinthine back alleys. Returning from the edge of a gorge too deep to cross to the viewpoint I clearly see less than a few hundred metres away, I encountered another lost soul.

Isla Del Sol, BoliviaMax was Portuguese but sounded Italian. He was fifty four but looked a lot younger and we shared similar philosophies for life and travel: mainly a preference for solitude but in this case an exception in sharing these stunning views over the lake and distant mountains. It made for a pleasant change.

Isla Del SolFor the return cruise, I nabbed a seat on the roof. High altitude, full sun reflected by the lake, people were breaking out the sunscreen. I just pull my hat down further and covered up with long sleeves. It turns out I’m in a group of four Brits and an Aussie. An hour and a half break from struggling with the
Spanish language. The Aussie had taken the Isla de la Luna option, which left not enough time for enjoying the Isla Del Sol. “Not worth the time you lose,” was the verdict: a bare island with some small Inca ruins but largely a nature reserve.

Stepping onto the Copacabana jetty, I invited Max for an evening drink at around six thirty. He said he’d meet me at my Hostal. I never saw him again.

I had planned to leave for La Paz the next day but the hostel was warm with good WiFi so I stayed one more day. I think I stayed one more day twice.

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