The Bolivian border is almost in sight. As we drive through some road construction, we are suddenly jolted by a deafening sound. To my ears it sounds like a gunshot. I think fast. What do I do in case of random gunfire? Duck? Head for cover? Leave the scene as fast as possible? The entire construction crew freezes on the spot. As our Ural limps to the side of the road, I realize that leaving the scene quickly isn’t an option but also isn’t necessary. There was no gunshot, just the sound of one of our trusty Chinese tires bursting, punctured by construction debris. A quick swap with our spare and we’re on the road again.
Soon we are at the border, warmly greeted by a Bolivian official who speeds us through the necessary paperwork. We make it out of Peru and into Bolivia in about an hour and a half, making this one of our smoothest border crossings since leaving the U.S.. On the Bolivian side, we meet a young Australian lady not quite as well-prepared. Her Bolivian visa has expired but her desire to stay in the country has not. Leaving all of her possessions in Bolivia, she legally enters Peru and then immediately heads back across the border into Bolivia to receive a new visa. But her request for a new visa is declined. She has overstayed her welcome by overstaying her visa. This is a traveller’s nightmare but the risk that you take by trying to stretch the rules. We offer our sympathies and head off down the road, never learning her fate.
Our first stop in the country? Fuel. Or so we had planned. We pass several fuel stations that are unexplainably closed before finding one that can help us. Well, sort of help us. Bolivia has a law in place to prevent Peruvians from crossing the border and taking advantage of lower fuel prices. Within 100 km of a border, vehicles with foreign registration can purchase a maximum of five litres of fuel. We’d heard about the fuel limitations and aren’t surprised. Our solution is to stop at every open fuel station that we see for the remainder of the day, all two of them, purchasing what we can and then moving on.
We are now leaving the shores of Lake Titicaca and once again crossing the altiplano as we head toward the widest part of the Andean range. Our wheels are pointed in the direction of the capital, La Paz, but we’ve made a decision to skip the big city in favour of travelling off-the-beaten-path. We turn off the main road and head for the town of Viache.
As we move further into the country, we start to form a clearer picture of Bolivia, the poorest country in South America despite being the richest in natural wealth. Bolivia’s politics and history are tumultuous and tragic, but their culture has changed little in centuries. It is estimated that 64% of the population live below the poverty line with this figure increasing to 80% in most of the rural areas where we are travelling. Average annual earnings are around US$900.
Nowhere is the state of the economy more obvious than in the road conditions. The road to Viache is treacherous. When we arrive we learn that there is only one hotel, but the hotel owner is not there. I have one person trying to reach her by phone and another searching her out on foot, returning with the assurance that the owner will arrive in just a moment. We keep waiting, but sunset is fast approaching. If she doesn’t show up, our best alternative is to head to La Paz which will take more time than we have daylight. We decide it is best to head to the city now.
The city is one giant street-market. Pedlars are hawking everything from food and medicine to hardware and household machinery. The number of street-side vendors is roughly equivalent to the number of pedestrians, and trying to find our way through the throngs of people is quite a challenge.
After driving through the city in the darkness for about 30 minutes, I finally see a hotel sign. I hop out and head toward the hotel. Rushing along the crowded street, my eyes on the signs overhead rather than on where I am headed, I trip on an uneven piece of the pathway. Landing face-down on the sidewalk, I slide down the broken pavement. I knew that my diligence in wearing my full motorcycle gear was going to pay off at some point, but I hadn’t expected that it was going to be for the protection it would offer during a high-speed walking accident. Fully clothed in my helmet, motorcycle jacket, Kevlar trousers, and leather gloves I seem to be completely unharmed. From the corner of my eye I see dozens of leather boots and full skirts shuffling past and then finally a gloved hand reaching toward me to offer assistance. I turn to see the puzzled face of a police officer. I accept his hand, spring to my feet, offer a “Muchos gracias” and continue on my way, dazed but acting as if nothing unusual has happened. I can’t imagine how ridiculous this must have looked to the many onlookers – a very tall and strangely clad foreign woman doing a dive and slide through the street market. I do know how to put on a show.
After all of this excitement, I find the hotel and learn that it has absolutely no parking available. Not good. We keep going and when we eventually spot another hotel, it takes about 20 minutes to make our way through the traffic just to get around the block to the front door. But it is worth it – a nice hotel with secure parking included. The price is about US$50 which is significantly more than we have become accustomed to, but at this point the price seems reasonable if it will get us off of the busy streets and provide a much-needed resting place.
After parking and settling in, we explore the neighborhood on foot to find someplace for dinner. Wandering the streets, we really have an opportunity to soak in the atmosphere of this bustling market city lost in time. We are mingling with the throngs of Indians in bowler hats and petticoats as we browse for some exotic delicacy. We finally settle on one of the nine street-front chicken vendors across the street from our hotel. Yes, despite our searching, chicken is once again the best option for dinner. As we eat, we reflect on our first impressions of Bolivia. The government and infrastructure are presenting us with some new challenges, but the people we have encountered have gone out of their way to help us and make us feel welcome. We will grow to appreciate the people of Bolivia even more in the coming days as their country continues to put us to the test.