Over the last couple of months, the Smiles & Miles website has received a bit of a facelift in preparation for an upcoming surge of stories. We’ve created a format that will allow us to continue to share our stories and lessons in a way that we hope will make them more accessible for our readers. Most notably, we’ve added separate pages for each of the countries where we’ve shared our journey and for the resources we’ve made available. There is still lots of construction going on behind the scenes and we welcome your feedback as we continue to make adjustments and additions.
Along with the new appearance, we’ve also added the final stories from our time in Bolivia:
Loading the bikes on the busy streets of La Paz is proving to be quite a challenge. There is barely room to move between the shuffling feet and every second pair of feet stops to watch or photograph us, causing even more congestion. On the positive side, the attention is fun and we’re having a great time posing for pictures and answering questions in our broken Spanish. Well over an hour later, we finally have our gear and ourselves out of the hotel lobby, across the sidewalk and onto the bikes.
The day’s destination is Oruro, a mining city and the largest settlement of the Southern Altiplano. This fascinating city sits against a range of hills at the northern end of the country’s salty lake district. These hills are chock-full of copper, silver and tin, forming the backbone of the city’s economy. When the price of tin dropped in 2008, the average monthly salary of a miner went from US$3000 to US$280. Mines were closed, putting 1500 miners out of work. Things have slowly started to look up since, as some mines are again re-opening but in the meantime, this part of the country is still finding its’ way through a drastic change of fortune.
As we head out of Oruro after a fun night wandering through the street markets, we are hit with an unexpected blow. There have been changes in Bolivia overnight – changes that will create some new challenges for us during the rest of our stay in the country. Due to a new law that came into effect yesterday, foreigners can purchase fuel only at a designated ‘foreigner approved’ fuel station and only at prices more than double what the locals pay. We aren’t terribly concerned with the price, but getting any information on the location of the designated stations is proving difficult. We drive from one end of the city to the other, stopping at every fuel station looking for information and fuel. Nobody will sell us fuel and nobody knows which station is the ‘approved’ one. Finally, as our fuel supply is dwindling and we think that we are now at the last fuel stop in the city, a military officer points us in another direction. There is one more fuel stop and thankfully they will sell to us, although at a significantly increased cost and with an enormous amount of paperwork. Nevertheless, we are finally refueled and ready for the next stage of our journey.
We make a decision to continue our ‘off-the-beaten-track’ adventures and head towards a seldom-visited part of Bolivia and a little-used border crossing into Chile. As we head out on the highway, several concerns are on our minds: we aren’t sure where our next tank of fuel will come from, the condition of the highway is steadily deteriorating, we are being choked by voluminous clouds of black exhaust coming from every truck, and the nearest border to Chile is still days away. If the major highway is barely drivable, what will we face on the smaller roads where we are headed?
We find our next tank of fuel at a station in a small village where the notice of the new law is posted. While one employee says “No” to fueling us up, the other ignores her and fills our tanks. Shortly afterward, we take our turn off of the highway, heading toward Salinas de Garci-Mendoza, Llica, and the Chilean border.
There is no pavement, just gravel and deep corrugations. We have now entered the kamikaze road network of potholes and deep ravines that make up the 95% of Bolivian roads that are unpaved. These are known as some of the bumpiest and most poorly maintained roads in the world. The roads are so rough that it seems as if for each mile of official road, there are six miles of unofficial roads off to the sides, created by the locals to keep from being continually sent flying by a trip on the official roads.
As Miles tackles the challenge of maneuvering across the deeply rutted terrain, I spend some time riding on the back of Stefan’s bike which is provided with its’ own challenges as we hit the deep sand of this desert landscape. Both Stefan and his Honda Africa Twin are highly skilled in this environment, but with the added weight of me on the back, it is a lot to manage. We have a couple of close calls where we are able to stop before falling and I push the bike out of the sand while Stefan drives. But finally, even skill isn’t enough. We wobble toward the left, then to the right and I bang my leg hard on the side of the bike before finally landing on the ground with the bike’s pannier hitting me in the hip. I will have a few good bruises, but other than that Stefan and I as well as the bike are all fine, at least for now.
A short while later, Stefan turns off into an abandoned village so that we can check out at an interesting-looking church. As we head back to the bike, Stefan sees a large pool of oil under his bike. Big Trouble. I head to the road to see if I can still flag down Miles but he is nowhere in sight. Stefan spends a few minutes examining the bike before determining that there is a major oil leak. We have managed to hit a rock hard enough to puncture the skid plate and create a hole in the engine case. He hops on and speeds off down the road, trying to catch Miles. It takes a moment before it sinks in. I am abandoned . . . in a deserted village . . . in the middle of a steaming hot desert . . . where I haven’t seen another person for hours . . . and it is about 1 hour before sunset . . . and I have nothing but myself and my motorcycle gear. I have no idea how long it will be before Miles and Stefan return. It seems logical that they will deal with Stefan’s bike before heading back to pick me up, so I could be here for a while. My mind is prone to heading in all sorts of strange directions in these uncomfortable situations. Yikes!
Thankfully, Stefan isn’t gone for long and Miles returns shortly behind him. We follow the first rule of repair according to Horizons Unlimited and make a cup of tea. Rather than rushing through a quick and probably poor repair, we decide to camp here for the night and think through the best way to fix the bike. My mind quickly shifts from panic to excitement. I’m looking forward to a night of camping, set up in the midst of an abandoned village with wild vicuña wondering past our tents.
In the morning, the boys manage to repair Stefan’s damaged oil sump with some silicone and a bandage from our first aid kit. It’s amazing what is possible when you just don’t have that much to work with. Shortly afterward, we are headed to Salinas de Garci-Mendoza, once again in search of fuel. Under the watchful eye of a local police officer the fuel station in this tiny village fills our tanks, no questions asked. I guess they have not received the memo yet!
As we head toward Llica, the sand gets softer and deeper, sometimes up to our axles. At times there is no clear path and we need to move forward on faith that we will find our way. At one point, we start losing momentum, soon to be stuck in the deep sand. The sea of sand extends for the next 400-500 metres before a patch of high ground. Miles calmly looks over at me and yells “JUMP!” We need to lighten our load and losing me is the quickest way. We had discussed this possibility in advance, but the reality of jumping from a moving vehicle is far more frightening than I had expected. I’m momentarily paralyzed and the questions start to fly:
T: “Why do I need to do get out?”
M: “Just get out.”
T: “I don’t wanna.”
T: “But, but, but…”
As time passes, we are slowing and slowing into the deep sand. I finally get myself onto the side step and leap with Miles commenting that I look like I’m auditioning for the trapeze act at the circus. Thankfully the sand is soft and cushions my fall. Knowing that Miles was moving as fast as possible to get out of the sand, I am certain that we were traveling at least 15 kph. I feel quite heroic. Unfortunately, I am disheartened when I finally look back at the Ural to see it stuck in the sand, regardless of my significant efforts. I am even more disheartened when Miles tells me that we were barely moving at walking speed when I finally jumped. Well, as I learned yesterday, my mind does have a tendency to exaggerate in these situations. I’m guessing that the reality is somewhere in the middle of our two visions. Overall, leaping from a moving vehicle, regardless of its velocity, is not enjoyable and I recommend avoiding it at all costs.
Now it’s time to start digging and pushing our three wheels through the sand.
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.