A problem we encountered while roaming the streets of Copacabana on Lake Titicaca’s southern shore would come back to haunt us as we made the cruise from the lake, through the snow and on the notorious ferry had to do with cash: Bolivian currency. Rolling into Copacabana across the Perumvian/Bolivia border we exchanged the last of our Peruvian soles into Bolivianos which proved just enough to secure us a hotel room and a couple plates of bad pasta as the stars twinkled above the lake and the backpacking South American tourists took nearly ever restaurant seat in town. We’d soon discover there’s no ATM in Copacabana. Even if the money changers were open that night both Jeremiah and I made a habit of not carrying too much cash — let alone American dollars. We both had small stashes buried in the bottom of our panniers, but rather than dig and retrieve we used a credit card for our second night in Copacabana and figured that after a few hour ride to La Paz we’d replenish our reserves from ATMs to be surely found in the capital city.
So with the remaining couple dollars of Bolivianos we eeeked out a few liters of very low octane fuel from a gas station and made our way to the city of La Paz. All was fine until we came to the toll booth — peaje — about 10 miles outside of La Paz. Jeremiah was in the lead and had to explain that we would love to pay for this wonderful toll for the privilege of riding one of the few paved roads in Bolivia, but we North American adventure motorcycles had no cash. I couldn’t hear through the drone of my engine and the muteness of my earplugs, but the conversation at the toll booth was getting longwinded but not going anywhere. The cars and trucks piled behind us and soon the decibels of honking horns exceeded my engine noise and the cop in the booth was gesturing for us to pull over to the side of the road.
I pulled a couple warn dollar bills and a five from my wallet and suggested Jeremiah try to pay for the $2 in US dollars. They agreed to accepting American currency, but just wouldn’t take our single ($1) bills. You see in Bolivia there are no 1 Boliviano bills (paper money). Sure, they’ve got coins, but no bills. As such they wouldn’t accept an American George Washington dollar bill. Fortunately, folded in the corner of my wallet was a tattered Abe Lincoln $5 bill that had been refused by no less than 3 money changers including the women who exchanged our Peruvian money at the Bolivian border. I handed that worn bill to Jeremiah. Minutes later he returned with change in Bolivianos. Mission accomplished — with a bit of fanfare.
A wrong turn found us cruising a questionable neighborhood in the “upper” part of La Paz. Call it a suburb or call it a rats nest, but literally hundreds of mini-busses were all vying for customers while gun toting traffic cops tried to direct the passing through traffic into dirty crowded cobblestone streets slick and slippery from the afternoon rain. We finally got pointed in the right direction and were cruising down into the crater where the beautiful and majestic capital city of La Paz sits. The highest capital city in the world, La Paz confused us and had us wandering for a couple hours through the city. We rejected one hotel that our guide book had called sparkling. Jeremiah vetoed the room before I saw it and he has a bit higher tolerance for sleeping quarters than I, so I knew it must’ve been a dump.
Passing through the color Plaza de San Francisco we negotiated our bikes up hills, past street closure barriers and finally to our hotel. it seemed to take an hour to negotiate parking as they didn’t want us to park the bikes in the lobby. We refused to park a block away at a public parking area. Soon they gave in and let us park in a small storage room filled with construction equipment and materials. Outside on the sidewalk, an ad hoc market was in full swing. Women wearing fedoras and layers of colorful dresses and sweaters spread their wares out on blankets, small tables, buckets and burlap bags. Odd as it seemed to me, the whole scene appeared to be normal. Down the street we coulda strolled through the witches market where I’m told fetuses of llamas can be purchased for use in religious rites and festivals. No thanks.
Just a few weeks ago this impoverished country voted a new president: Evo Morales. His popularity and notoriety were evident virtually everywhere we rode in Bolivia. Just about every town had several houses, stores and concrete walls painted in large blue letters MAS EVO. Mas stands for Evo’s political party (movement toward socialism) and he is the first indigenous person to be voted president since Bolivia was liberated in the early 1800’s. A former coca farmer he based his campaign on legalizing coca farming (but not cocaine) and nationalizing natural resources such as mining and gas. A champion for the working class and poor, it’s evident that much hope and huge expectations will weight this new young president down. Next week he’s due to be sworn into office and deliver his acceptance speech. Everywhere there are vendors selling books depicting his life story, calendars with his campaign pictures and a cover of a newspaper equates him in an odd sense to John Lennon. I find it a bit wacky that he chose his first meeting of diplomacy as Bolivian president to be with Fidel Castro. Others are comparing him to Venezuelan president Chavez. Interesting times in South America as Chile voted there first woman president and a tight race in Peru might find a woman in office or a militant dictator. Wait and see.
For me, La Paz is a turning point and a wait and see episode as we evaluate our options for journeying south. Both Jeremiah and I would hate to leave this country without seeing the Salar de Uyuni — the world’s largest salt flat and home to a strange and odd breed of pink flamingoes who make their home in this desolate dry lake 15,000 feet above sea level. But the rainy season has made riding our bikes through the Salar impossible. Our hope is perhaps to venture out into the 10 inch deep water and hope that a clear day will tease our eyes with the grandeur of a massive reflecting pool surrounded by flamingoes, volcanoes and desolate salt structures. Another option is a cruise down the world’s most dangerous road. Named this by some worldwide organization who monitors such things such as which road is responsible for more fatalities than any other. A narrow, winding dirt road that hangs precipitously on the side of a mountain as the elevation drops from 14,000 feet to near sea level in 30 or 40 miles. The road is only wide enough for one vehicle to pass, and uphill vehicles have the right of way. Apparently one or two busses a month make the plunge down 1,000 feet of sheer cliffs disappearing into the jungle below — hence the death toll accelerates with each plunge. Tourist offices in La Paz hawk mountain bike rides down “The World’s Most Dangerous Road”. Why would i want to ride this? First the jungle. It’s the quickest way to get close to the Amazonian jungle, called the Yungas. Second, it’s exhilarating. Not that I have a death wish, but truly it’s perhaps no different than riding the Highway to the Sun in Glacier National Park, or a hundred other roads I’ve been on. It just has earned a legendary status among travelers and motorcyclists. But I worry that the rains have caused a more muddy route than I’d prefer — more worried about aggressive bus riders coming around a corner only to find me stopped waiting for an uphill bus but sliding in the mud perhaps just too close for my liking.
Otherwise, we have to blow off both options and head toward the Atacama in Chile across a more northern route in Bolivia. This would get us to drier dirt roads and perhaps get us closer to Santiago and southern Chile so we can meet our goal of being in Ushuaia by the first week of February.
Options. Decisions. I do want to visit Potosi and see the legendary mines of Cerra Rica. We’ll see.
As I wandered the main drag of La Paz’s affluent district, I was taken back by the number of young men walking around with wooden boxes dressed in full ski masks. Gloves too. Looking like terrorists or bandits caging the parks for helpless victims, they were everywhere. Turns out they are shoe shine boys. But why the ski masks? Are they part of a cult? Getting ready for practicing religious rituals? it wasn’t that cold, but I’m sure I can get cold. But all of them wearing the ski masks. I couldn’t stand it any longer and had to ask. I imagine most tourists walking along the park would be afraid and do what they could to avoid contact. But Jorge told me they wear the masks because of the sun. Of course, this is the highest capital city in the world. The strong sun combined with the high altitude wreaks havoc on the skin of even these indigenous dark skinned natives that they where masks because they are never indoors.
If you find yourself in La Paz, get a shoe shine. The masked bandits are harmless.