Monday, 31 December 2012

Bolivia - La Paz and the Death Road to Coroico

We made it into La Paz in the dark.  Gee whiz, I wouldn't want to do that again.  The traffic was full stop.  Inching through every kilometer breathing in tons of bus exhaust. The pavement has been sunken so much with those wheel ruts that it's impossible to lane split to get ahead. That was a tough one.

We found a pocket of hostels to start checking on for the night.  The city is dark and busy and we pull in to a couple of them to ask prices.

As many of you know, while I was inside asking about prices with Dean (who doesn't speak Spanish), we left Barton outside to watch the bikes.  My tank bag's zipper has been broken for a while, making it more important to watch.  However, when I came out, my back pack and all the contents inside the tank bag were gone, while Barton was talking to a Bolivian woman.  My heart sank again for the umpteenth time in the last few weeks.  My nice big camera and long lens are gone.. Spot tracker gone.. maps, documents, the list goes on.  Usually I would take the backpack inside with me to enquire about rooms, but I really thought he'd keep an eye on it.  We were all tired, and he was just being kind answering the womans questions, however, it was probably organized to draw his attention away. Bugger. In the whole world, in my whole life, I have never had anything stolen from me like this.

The police couldn't be bothered but they did tell me I can go file a report with the 'tourist' police in the morning.  Other than that, there is nothing I can do.

Paz means peace in Spanish. This ain't it. La Paz is big and loud.. full of protests and bombs going off all day and all night. Sitting in the hostel for breakfast, so many bombs went off close by it made me scream.  I guess this might be what the Gaza strip is like. Yes, I'm sort of exagerating, but hopefully the Bolivians can restore their city to it's proper meaning again someday.  But by the sound of the government here, they've got a long road ahead of them. I didn't like it and had no reason to stay.  La Paz is very near the famous "Death Road" which we intend to check out while here.

This is a goal destination for most Bolivian riders. The Death Road, also known as the North Yungas Road or Coroico Road, has it's reputation, a well earned one. If you haven't heard of it before, it is listed as one of the most dangerous roads in the world. It truly used to be, it just isn't anymore. One estimate says that 200-300 people used to die on this road per year.  However, they have recently built a new double lane paved road.  The locals use the new one and it's mostly us, the tourists, that travel on the Death Road.  Interestingly it's usually quite full with mountain bikers. They bring backpackers out from La Paz on a daily tour to ride down Death Rd as a gimmik.  However, while researching the road before we started, I found that a female mountain biker lost control on her tour just days ago and plummeted to her death. I kept that in mind all the way..

Kevin was here recently.  If his bike hadn't broke down in Ecuador and Peru, we would have had time to ride this together.  Our route was to ride Lima to Cusco (he told me a million times I need to go to Cusco with him, he's been before and loved it there). Then down to La Paz for this one road. We all would love the opportunity to brag about riding the "world's most dangerous road". However, you know the story.  I had to move on to Chile.  So I was really glad when Kevin finally made it here.  However, he didn't get to do it anyway.  He tried one day and it was so foggy, he turned around and came back to La Paz.  When he spoke to me on skype that night, I told him there was no hurry to get south since now my own bike is broken down in Chile, and to give it another try the following morning.  He did, it was still super foggy so he turned back for a second time and never did complete the road.  I was proud of him at the time, because he's a strong-willed man and has been looking forward to riding the Death Road for so long, but he needed to make safe decisions on the bike.

So with Kevin's piece of helmet I have with me, hopefully we can finally accomplish this goal together too.

I'm riding again today with Dean and Barton.

Leaving La Paz, we take the newer paved road to the high end, the same as Kevin.  You can either go from the bottom up, or the top down.  We chose the top.

I love riding in the clouds.. but it's freakin' cold up here! ;-)

Barton and Dean take a side route up in to the brittle mountain rock.  My head is not into the super difficult stuff right now, but these boys crave the hardest path they can find.  So the plan is for me to go and find the turn off for the Yungas Road and wait for them there.

It was quite a long wait.  I was getting concerned, but they eventually showed up.  Telling me that the steep rubble track was harder than they could do on Dean's heavy bike, so they had to turn back to take the main paved road as well.

Luckily there was a little lunch shack near the turn off. These shacks usually make the best meals. Nothing like a little Coka Quina with lunch! I keep pronouncing it as Co-caina. It's one of the few local coke copies that I actually really like.  A few coca leaves, a little carbonated water...... ;-0 Just kidding!  It tastes almost exactly like the Coca Cola recipe.

During lunch the rain started pouring, and we are in the fog.  Not the greatest combination for the death road.  Keeping in mind that both days Kevin attempted the ride it was foggy, we just came to the conclusion that it must always be foggy up at the top.  It may have been worse the days he was here, but on this day it seems like if we take it easy, it shouldn't be a problem.

I can honestly say that it was something to think about.  The road is carved out of the side of a mountain and nothing but a sheer cliff on one side.  As I continued along the dirt road, there was just the big white fog wall to the left of me.  Try not to look at it too much.  You know how it goes.. If you see a rock in the road and keep looking at it, you'll surely hit it rather than go around it? I was fascinated by it, but if I fell into the white abyss, I would never be found. So! Be careful!

I wanted to pull to the side of the road and get off the bike for a couple photos..  Sometimes I take them while riding, but today wasn't the day for that.

As you can see, within six kilometers, it was fairly clear.  Other than the odd water fall you need to ride through.. all is well!

Barton took the photo below from far away, if you can see me in there just before I am about to get drenched!

Haha.. this is funny... safety railing!

The farther down we went, the warmer it got.  And how welcome that was!  Ever since living in Bolivia the last few weeks at over 4000 meters, it has been rather nippy to say the least.  And the top of the Death Road is freezing.. including ice!  Here at the bottom, which didn't take long to reach, we are hot and sweating in the jungle.  We pull over to get some of the warmer layers off and reward ourselves with a beer. Death road alive and complete!

I love this photo of Barton and Dean, because they weren't saying much and staring at the wall.  I asked, "So... what are you guys looking at?" (knowing full well what it was.. ;-)  I had my camera ready when dthey whipped their heads around so fast.. "What.."  Ha, gotcha!

We came up to the town of Coroico.  It was too early in the day to stop and the boys have a dirt road mapped out as part of our route to Peru.  We didn't get too far past Coroico and the road came to a halt due to construction.  We stopped and asked how to get through, they told us you can't get through until tomorrow.  It turns out this road is only open for a short time each day.  It's due to open up at 8 AM.  So we turn around and find a cute little room for the night back in town. 

Helmets hung for the night, we found a nice Mexican restaurant to eat at in Bolivia!  It was really good too!

It was a bit tricky to park the bikes out on the street in the morning to finish packing.  They needed the space for cars to get through, but tucking them to the side, my bike kept wanting to fall over on this wobbly street.  I don't think Grandma was too thrilled either.

We really need to get to that road this morning before they close it off for the day, and we made it!  Woo hoo!

Hmmm. this road is interesting!  Almost immediately I am thinking it's more dangerous than the Death Road we did yesterday.  In the photo below with the dump truck, you can see my headlight coming around the corner between the rock and the truck?  Luckily he was going slowly, stopped, backed up a bit and let me pass.  That's how tight this road is, not enough space for a skinny motorcycle to pass a truck in many places.

Whew!  The boys got through before me and were waiting in the space past the truck.

We came to yet ANOTHER block in the road, but it wasn't long before they moved the boulders out of the way and we could pass.

Cruising the slippery dirt track again.. Always aware how much I don't want to make a mistake, but in general this road is quite fun!

Hmmm.. how are we going to get past this one.

The boys will come up with a plan to overcome this small hazard.

This one might be a bit more challenging.

We waited and waited, and watched the other people settling down eating their meals in their cars.  I remember telling the boys that I don't think this one is going to open any time soon.

I decided to ask a worker in his orange suit as to when he thinks we can continue.  He said around 7 PM.  What?  For real?  It's not even noon yet!  Bugger...  Dean did his best to convince the man that we could make it through on the motorcycles. Wasn't going to happen. Barton, Dean and I had a pow wow and decided not to wait ALL day on the side of a muddy cliff just to continue on this road.  If we turn around and ride back the 3 hours to Coroico, we could take an alternative road that would take us back to La Paz and we can go up into Peru the boring way - paved road.

I have to admit, this dirt road was fun yet scarey.  Definitely far more dangerous than the Death Road itself because of more local traffic along the steep mountain road that is crumbling apart in places.  But because the Death Road is not used by locals anymore, traveling this road beyond Coroico gave us a taste of what it would have been like only a few short years ago before they put in the paved roads.

Sunday, 30 December 2012

Roadside Memorial for Kevin

The next few days were really full in Potosi trying to organize the memorial.  It's not a funny time at all, but Patrick and I couldn't help but to chuckle when we picked up a little marker for the site.  Kevin had a much longer and fulfilling life than we knew!

We finally have all the materials and the builders organized so we can head out to get started.  The accident site is just 26 kilometers (16 miles) from Potosi on the road to Uyuni.

My friends Barton and Dean, had come into town on their travels.  They never met Kevin but wanted to join us for the day.  I think it may have something to do with Patrick's idea to blow dynamite up at site when we're finished?!  ;-)  The miners shop sells dynamite as mentioned in the previous mine post to anybody and we thought it would be a good and proper (albeit mischievous) send off for Kevin.

We did our best to have some fun with the day.  Once the blocks were set, Patrick brought along some music, I brought the beers, Barton and Dean scouted for a place to blow things up! 

Near the end of the day, a nice new red truck pulled over.  The people got out and walked straight to me.  Why me?  There are four of us here! I felt worried that they heard us blow the dynamite and were angry or maybe even this is their land and we didn't officially get permission to build the memorial here. We asked the police how to get permission when he brought us here, he said we didn't need any.

Anyway, the lady grabs my hand and kisses it and she kisses both of my cheeks.  She had a tear in her eye and wondered who we were.  I explained.  She then told me they were here that day.  She wasn't too far behind the accident and they had to wait in traffic here for hours because there was no way around.

She further told me some details of what they saw and that there were two trucks involved and confirmed my suspicion!  I couldn't believe it when she told me there was one large mining truck passing the slower truck ON THE CURVE!  Damn it!  I was so upset. So you can see by the curve and the rock wall on Kevin's side of the road, when he was cruising that curve, there were two GIGANTIC trucks taking up the entire road in front of him with nowhere to go. That's not what the police report said AT ALL.  On top of that, the license plate of the one truck they did put in the report was not traceable.  I can not prove it.. but what these people tell me seemed really heartfelt and I can't help but to believe them. It's only my opinion as nobody was there with Kevin that day to back up any facts.  But I can't help to imagine that the mining company and driver who hit Kevin paid off the already corrupt police not to report the truth to avoid trouble with their company. Anyway it was really nice for this family to stop and tell me what they knew. By the way they directly walked up to me, it seemed as if Kevin had sent them to tell us.  At least in my own mind it helped me piece together what didn't make sense on that horrible day.

I really want to mention it here because this road is so well known for anyone riding to one of South America's most popular biker destinations, the Salar de Uyuni.  It's a really beautiful road and nicely paved.  However mining operations all the way.  So if you are reading this post and plan to ride here, be aware that I have now seen many times (even just this one day while building the memorial) that the mining trucks do pass each other often with no concern about who's coming around the corner.  It can happen anywhere, but it's definitely worse with the amount of mines transporting ore on this one road in Bolivia .

The music is still going into the night.. the boys set off the dynamite 3 times, it was dark and a final goodbye.  The base paint is still too wet so we decided to leave the maple leaf off the Canadian flag.  I guess I should explain for those who don't know Kevin.  He was born and raised in Scotland, however spent the last 20 years living in Whistler Canada.  Like myself, he has two citizenships, so we included both his countries.  We decided to come back tomorrow to finish off the maple leaf part of the Canadian flag.

We tried to leave in the dark, but Patrick has a flat tire.  Hmmmm.  Kevin doesn't want us to leave!  Dean has heaps of tools and together they fixed Patrick's tire.  He tried to pull out once again.. FLAT.. for real?!?  Kevin really doesn't want us to leave!  Just kidding, but it was super ironic.  Or maybe it is just plain bad luck on this part of the road in Bolivia.

Now I have a decision to make.  Barton and Dean are heading north in the morning.  After we paint the maple leaf, Patrick is heading south.  Originally I was going to take a break from the world in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  However, now I'm closer to Cusco, Peru.  One of Kevin's favorite towns and the one I missed when I had to rush to get to Chile in time.  I'm usually a very solo independent sort of girl, but I'm not wanting to ride alone again.  So if I can leave with Dean and Barton to the north, I'd at least have someone to ride with until I stop in Cusco..  Patrick went back to finish the maple leaf himself the next day and I left with the boys.  A very emotional two weeks was complete and the fear of being on the road again was pretty strong.  I'm really grateful the boys are letting me tag along for a few days.

Here is a photo of the memorial including the maple leaf taken by UK friend Ian Moor who stopped by a month later.  It was great to see that people have been visiting with flowers, beers and even a Spanish poem for Kevin.

If you happen to be riding past and want to visit Kevin, the coordinates to the memorial are: S 19.71325 degrees, W 65.86806.. almost right on 26 kilometers from Potosi on the right side of the road toward Uyuni.

The next morning I packed up and headed out of Potosi with Barton and Dean.

On the way to the fuel station we came across a protest.. hmm.  They tried to tell us we can't get through but we went anyway.

Ever since I've been in Potosi there have been mining protests from the miners and their families. Since witnessing the mine myself, can't blame them for protesting!

Getting fuel is another big issue in Bolivia.  They have a local rate and a foreigner rate.  When I paid for my fuel, they charged me the local rate. I happily paid and moved forward.  Then the worker came after me wanting more money.  I argued that I already paid.  Yes, but you didn't pay the foreigners rate which is 4 times higher!  Too bad, you charged me fairly and I paid fairly.  So I am not paying that much more just because I'm not a Bolivian.  He was adamant and called the police guard over.  A crowd brewed, so I guess I have to pay more.  It just ticked me off.

The police guard in front of my bike smiles, but won't let me go until I pay more gas money.

We did our best to get through Potosi.  Lucky for us we are on motorcycles.  The people didn't seem to have a problem with us and many cheered us on.

The locals and backpackers are a bit stuck though.  Some are off the bus and making the long walk with all their luggage to Potosi. Fuel trucks can't get through either, so I'm feeling very lucky we could fill up even if I was angry at the way we are treated at the fuel pump.

Ahh.. we're free and on the open Bolivian road toward La Paz.  It's a bit like surfing though! The weight of the mining trucks has made a dent in the road, at times being very deep. Passing slower cars is a motorcross event!

I'm not liking the emotions of what feels like leaving Kevin behind, alone again.  I know he's not really there, it was just a bit hard.  This is the first time I've been alone with myself in my helmet for several days and a lot is going through my mind.  The one thing I do have is a large piece from Kevin's helmet that we found on the side of the road.  I really want to get that piece down to Ushuaia, at the very bottom of Argentina for him, and in a small way, help him complete his South American journey as intended.

About half way to La Paz, the police pull us over.  They say we are speeding and the officer is demanding $300 USD. I refuse for the second time today. The officer tells me to get off my bike and walks me over to his car.  He tells me to get in.  I told him no.  He said he wants to take me to the station so I can pay the fine. I refuse.  I explain to him I am a woman and in no way am I getting in to his car alone.  He seemed somewhat understanding to that so he went to try his luck with getting the money out of Barton and Dean. We've been warned about these corrupt cops, and luckily I'm traveling with experienced world travelers who have a trick up their sleeve.

I wouldn't take a photo of the officers faces in fear of getting in more trouble.  But Barton and Dean are goofing off and laughing and acting like total crazy fools.  They were acting like monkey's, talking really loud, even singing!  Besides proclaiming they don't speak Spanish, the craziness lasted for 15 - 20 minutes? Just a guess, but it was a really long time.  The cop finally gave up... called us a rude Spanish name and told us to go.  Ha!

Another stop to pay a toll again to travel this lovely road.

Regardless of my dislike to how things are going in Bolivia, it is a really pretty country to ride a motorcycle.. and I can see the snowy tipped mountains coming up.

We saw a huge gathering of cars coming up and wondered what it was.. A Bolivian party!  The women are dancing away, the men are drinking beer.  The same anywhere in the world, hey?

We haven't managed to have lunch yet and we are getting really hungry.  The next little town we saw was time to pull in.

It's standard for us to head to the plaza in the center.  We'll have our most luck here.  Whatever they are celebrating today is happening with this small group of people as well.  Dean wants to ask them where we can get food.  They'd rather ask us questions and offer beer!

These two happy Bolivians offer me beer, and I politely took one sip.  I'm also not real keen to know where that glass has been, but they are the nicest Bolivians I have encountered so far.  Even though they are totally drunk.

The only place we could manage some food was in this little convenience shop.  We had chicken and chips.  We were so hungry, we ordered it twice, while an old man patiently waited and begged for our left overs.. Of which he scored well.  He was so happy to walk out with his food and we were glad to give it to him.

After that long late lunch we though about finding a place to stay tonight in this town.  There was nothing, so we decided to continue riding to La Paz.