An Amateur Riding the Bolivian Andes


I was sitting at a campground in the outskirts of La Paz, Bolivia, chugging beers and reflecting on our trip so far, when the thought struck me. On the way back from the last booze run, I had spotted a sign “Motorcycle Adventure Tours”. Few minutes later, I walked right in, six pack of Paceña in hand.

Sure enough, they did offer motorcycle tours. After some idle conversation with Miguel the owner, he got down to business. “We have several tours in the outskirts of the city… suitable for all riders,…”. Yada-yada, your usual tourist thing. As I was drifting towards the door, he added. “There’s also the high mountains tour, which we haven’t done in over 6 months…”. I perked up – after all, I hadn’t driven 25,000 miles to La Paz just to get the watered-down, tourist angle on things. Despite the “expert riders only” warning, I opted-in for the real thing. It didn’t occur to me that I hadn’t ridden a motorcycle for over 20+ years, and only very briefly at that… We shook hands, Miguel instructed me to be there “early” next morning, and I went back to have some more beer.

At 7:30am, which is plenty early by my standards, I show up. No one. Half an hour later, Miguel arrives and hands me a barely readable photocopy of a waiver, which I duly fill out. He never asks for my license. That’s handy, because I’ve never had one. But who am I to nitpick – when in Rome, do as the Romans… He then proceeds to outfit me in full enduro gear, and while I try out different sizes of clothing and helmets, a second guy – Juan – shows up. He will be my guide.

Juan doesn’t waste any time and takes me to the side of the shop where there are 3 motorcycle standing – a red Honda 650, a yellow Suzuki 650 and another of a different color. I like red so I pick the Honda. Juan prompts me to hop on and take her for a spin. I manage to “hop on” after a few tries without pulling any muscles. These beasts are tall. My feet are dangling and I can barely touch the ground with one. I fire her up, crank into 1st and immediately stall. It doesn’t help that the shop is on a very steep street… La Paz is at 13,000 ft elevation and very hilly, think San Francisco. I manage to do a few rounds around the block, stall her once more, but Juan doesn’t seem overly concerned, so I decide there’s no cause for concern either. I also try out the Suzuki and while the seat feels somewhat lower, the Honda seems somehow my thing.

A few moments later, we’re ready to hit it and Juan instructs me to follow him. He weaves at a very healthy pace through the morning rush hour traffic of La Paz. I have no choice but to follow, as he doesn’t glance much back. We jump a bunch of red lights, stop signs, cut into opposite traffic, which seems to be the norm in La Paz. I’ve learned after a year and a half of traveling the Americas that it’s much better to follow local customs without questioning too much, so I zip along. By that time, I’m quite comfortable with the bike and I am starting to enjoy myself, overtaking, zipping between cars, most of the time with one hand, as I use the other, as local custom demands, to indicate turns and warn off other drivers.

Once we’re through the center of La Paz, we take a shortcut into some very dilapidated neighborhoods. Houses are made of oil drums or other metal containers. There are children playing semi-naked in the dirt, hens, dogs and black pigs running around. People wander around aimlessly, men drinking in front of their houses, women hanging laundry to dry in the morning sun. Dust all over and I am starting to feel the blistering sun at this high altitude.

It’s amazing how the character of dogs is directly related to the economic well being of a country. For instance, in Chile and Argentina, dogs are pretty mellow, just lying or hanging out, and barely glance at you when you walk by. Not so in Bolivia.
We get attacked on several occasions and these bastards really do give chase. As we have no choice but to slow down to cross intersections, one manages to get me by the ankle, but can’t pierce the plastic motocross boots. Thank God, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to rabies shots. At this point, more mundane concerns such as proper switching of gears, braking and handling of the motorcycle have completely disappeared from my mind. Moreover, following Juan’s expert handling of the situation, I quickly learn how to ride ninja style, kicking at them when they get close enough. I manage to hit a couple – wohoo, Peter 2, dogs 1! I am having a blast!

The city fades back in the distance, as we make our way into the mountains. The dirt road quickly turns into single track, then it ends all together, as Juan cuts into some lava fields. Before veering of, he quickly motions to me something, which I interpret as “gun it”. I happily downshift and oblige and good that I do, as this is steeper than it looks. I stand on the pegs, torso over the handlebars, quickly remembering years of mountainbiking in the Rockies. Juan has stopped at a ridge and nods approvingly. I take this as a sign I’ll live after all, he takes it a sign to step up things. A lot. We go flying over ruts, rocks, dirt, lava ashes. My butt has long forgotten the feel of the seat. To me, the sensation of riding is a lot like MTB, except that you have huge travel of the fork and shocks and you can do all sort of things, including kill yourself more effectively. I’m loving it! Oh yes, and you don’t have to pedal up either 😉
Am I really going down this thing?!?

We ride to several beautiful lagoons, painted with many colors, because of the different mineral deposits they contain. I stall the bike on 2 particularly tricky descents, and drop it on one occasion, but it’s all good. Juan also almost falls on one of these, so whatever. As we go higher and higher, we start hitting patches of snow. Tricky! We reach 16,500 ft. and I can definitely feel it in my body, as mounting and dismounting becomes increasingly more difficult. The Honda can feel it too – I notice I’ve to keep her at a lower gear and rev her up to keep up with the altitude.

At some point, we leave the bikes and hike up to a nearby peak. The ascent is only 1,600 ft, and the summit just shy of 18,000 but boy, what a hike. The sun is baking, my motorcycle boots feels made of lead. And yet, despite the heat, there’s plenty snow and someone has made a snowman along the trail 😉 As we stand at the top, the panorama around is breathtaking – La Paz in the distance, blue lagoons, multi-colored ones and, towering above us at 21,000 ft, the snow covered peaks of Illimani and Huayna Potosí. Of course, I didn’t bring any sunscreen and I will feel it the day after.

After the hike, which despite the relatively short distance takes quite a bit of time, we share a couple sandwiches and mount again. Juan asks if I’m tired, to which I half-lie “no”. Then he decides to go even more mental, but, as he’s gained some respect (or is it pity) for me, starts to stop at crucial technical sections and gives me advice on how to better negotiate them. The line, I can read from years of MTB, as well as the body balance, but when it comes to the moto specific side of things, I admit I’m overwhelmed on several occasions. Cool stuff!

Later during the day, we stop at an abandoned miner’s cemetery. It’s unearthly – set in a high desert with no living soul for miles, tombstones, crosses and artificial flowers against the backdrop of the magnificent snow peaks of the Cordillera Real. The place is so charismatic, eerily out of this world, that a German photographer’s last wish was to be buried here, a giant replica of his Nikon camera facing the snowy mountains forever…

It’s past 7pm when we make our way back through La Paz, just in time for evening rush hour. Before that, I get to drive on the craziest highway in the world – an immaculate 3 lanes in each direction with not a single car! I wonder why this is and sure enough, I am to find out soon. It ends, without any warning, in one of the municipal dump grounds! We cut straight into the dump site on a little path, which soon disappears and we’re riding among and on top of piles of trash. At this point, I switch to auto pilot, adrenaline oozing out of every pore; obstacle – hard on the brakes, lean over and push the bike hard into the ground for traction, open the throttle, go over, hey, I am getting air! Juan launches off a few proper jumps and gets huge air, but I am too timid to follow on the big ones. In retrospect, good call.

On the way to the campground, I have a bad moment when a bus and a taxi jump a red light, but by then I already know the rules of the game and escape unscathed.

It’s already dark when we make it back. Over the course of the following few days, I realize how intense the riding was – every muscle hurts. And, as a final conclusion, I decide it would be extremely foolish to buy a motorcycle upon our return in the US. Nevertheless, that doesn’t stop me from trying out several different 250-350 cc bikes on a nearby motocross track. And although I’m enjoying them immensely, the wild mountain ride was the real thing.

So now the big question. As I am writing this in an Airbnb in Buenos Aires several months later, having shipped the camper back and pending our return to the US, I can’t help but wonder. Which bike should I get – the Honda, a Suzuki 650, or a Kawasaki 650?

Thanks for reading!

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One Comment

  1. Ivan
    January 24, 2018
    Reply

    Exciting! At last you made me truly jealous. Nice work, riding and writing!

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