Armored bike cops in La Paz, Bolivia
One of the problems we encountered when riding into Bolivia an hour before the border closed and in the twinkling of moonlight was getting Bolivian currency. We traded the last of our Peruvian soles at the border, but this was barely enough to pay for our room and a bowl of bad pasta late night in Copacabana. To make matters worse there are no ATM machines and only one bank (closed) in Copacabana. We only had a few American dollars in our possession. We decided to watch costs and hit the first ATM we found in La Paz the next day.
After that notorious ferry ride across Titicaca we used the last of our Bolivianos (Bolivian currency) at a gas station. We were pushing it and according to my GPS we’d have the fuel to make it into La Paz and knew there’d be no problem getting cash. But we didn’t count on tolls (peaje). Jeremiah pulled up the toll booth about 10 miles outside of the capital of this impoverished country and tried to explain that we had no money. This didn’t go over well and through the drone of my engine through my earplugs I didn’t really know what was going on. Next thing the police man is waving us to the side of the road so he can collect tolls from true paying riders on this Bolivian highway and figure out what to do with us.
Toll booth copy telling Jeremiah to pull over. Sure you don’t have any money. Sure.
Jeremiah convinced them to take dollars. We had a handful of singles and a five dollar bill. The toll for both of us was $2. Pretty steep, I thought. But it was clearly marked on the side of the toll booth — this wasn’t “gringo” pricing. This was true. Minutes later Jeremiah came back and told me that they would accept dollar bills. What? It took a while for him to clarify with the cops and more with me. Seems that there is no such thing as a single (1) dollar or Boliviano “bill” and therefore they don’t accept single (1) dollar bills from the USA. I pulled the $5 out of my pocket and the cops were kind enough to give us Bolivianos in change so at least we wouldn’t ride into the capital cashless.
After getting turned around above the capital in a questionable area that one might (loosely) call a suburb. Soon enough I figured this wasn’t where we wanted or should be, so a quick u-turn and we were winding down the road that traverses the crater of this volcano in which the gorgeous city of La Paz sits. After arriving in the city center and rejecting one hotel it took us an hour to find the next choice and further negotiating at this hotel regarding parking took another hour until they finally agreed to let us park in a small storage room where construction equipment and materials were stored.
All along the street local people had tables, blankets or buckets and bags set up and were selling everything from watches, to wheat to toys to fruit and vegetables. There seemed to be no organization to this ad-hoc market yet it seemed to fit in naturally. La Paz would give us a day or two to determine whether we would take the road to Uyuni, the road of death to the Yungas (jungle) or simply avoid what was clearly becoming the rainy season and take a scenic route south of La Paz toward the Chilean coast where dry, arid and hot weather might allow us to make better time to get to Santiago and onward to Patagonia. But Jeremiah and I pained ourselves in this. True, timing was against us as the roads were getting muddier and the rain making some routes perhaps impassable. I didn’t want to leave Bolivia without at least a quick hello to the Salar de Uyuni. I was more hesitant about taking the “Most Dangerous Road in the World” a narrow dirt road that drops thousands of feet in 50 miles while hanging delicately to the side of a mountain providing amazing views and 1,000+ foot sheer drops. Called the most dangerous road because there are more deaths on this road than any other in the world — at least according to some worldwide organization that tracks such things. I know many people who’ve ridden this and it’s safe enough. It’s just one of those roads you want to be in control of the driving rather than a passenger on some chicken bus. I think the staggering fatalities add up due to the number of busses that slide off the side of the mountain. For me I figured the rains meant muddy roads and given that you must yield to uphill traffic (the road is only wide enough for one vehicle) I’d hate to be stopped when some bus came sliding down behind me and slipping in the mud.
Just last month the Bolivian people voted the first Indigenous person as president of the republic: Evo Morales. A former Coca farmer who’s MAS (movement toward socialism) party heavily campaigned on legalizing coca farming (but not cocaine) while nationalizing the gas and mining industries in Bolivia. All through the streets of La Paz and to a lesser extent in Copacabana I get a feeling that the expectations for this guy are immensely inflated. His popularity among the poor, farmers and indigenous is huge while the jury is out but some of the conservatives and liberals are holding back much comment. Vendors are toting books of his life, pictures, calendars and more. On the road to La Paz I was amazed to see campaign slogans for EVO spray painted on the roads across both lanes. There is a fervor for EVO that I’ve not seen anywhere in my travels over the years. The guy seems to be a loose canon as he chose as one of his first diplomatic meetings to sit down with Fidel Castro of Cuba. While not anti-American, he is clear to state that he’s not interested in letting American’s come into the country and tell them what to do. Confident that they can make and export products using the coca plant in toothpaste, soft drinks and other consumables. But he wants to stop the burning of coca fields that under the training of the Americans the Bolivian Army has been doing for many years. It’s wait and see.
And wait and see seems to be the tune for my next stop on this world wide journey. The road to Uyuni on the other hand is a gravel and dirt road that certainly becomes challenging and muddy during the rainy season, but it does take you through some of the most spectacular natural scenery and volcanoes in Bolivia. Though the Salar (largest salt flats in the world complete with pink flamingoes) is reported under water and riding our bikes out there would be out of the question, we hoped that perhaps we could join a jeep tour and at least experience it while we are in Bolivia.
These are things weighing heavy on us motorcycle travelers in the middle of January here in La Paz, Bolivia. What should I do?