Tierra Del Fuego

Day 40-44 – February 13-17

Cuzco, Peru to Puno, Peru to La Paz, Bolivia to Uyuni, Bolivia to Potosi, Bolivia

Helge once again forced us up early, and we headed out of Cuzco in time to beat the Saturday morning market traffic.

There was beautiful scenery along the way as we headed over a number of mountain passes:

We passed several small markets along the roadside:

All of the roads are improved by Bolivian standards . . .

With long open stretches spotted with high altitude lakes.

We entered the town of Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest lake navigable to large vessels, at 12,500 feet above sea level on the border between Peru and Bolivia. Titicaca is the second largest lake of South America (after Maracaibo). It covers some 3,200 square miles.

It being Saturday, there was a huge market covering the streets of the city . . .

. . . with prices that would make Americans weep – for example, a three-port electrical adapter for only $.30. In the hardware section, paper-thin corrugated metal was available (perhaps ¼ of the thickness of the roofing material in the states), but of course they don’t have hurricanes here.

A blacksmith was selling crowbars hammered out of rebar.

I sat down with some natives to eat what seemed to be fried sole—delicious!

I was surprised by the large number of pirated video games for sale from these small vendors.

Near the square was an elaborate concrete slide that was being thoroughly enjoyed by the children.

The real attraction, of course, is Lake Titicaca, which has several lavish resorts on its shores . . .

and many excursion vessels awaiting tourists.

We rented a boat to visit a village where Indians live on floating islands made of layers of peat (eight to twelve feet thick) that rise from the bottom of the lake. They tie together the islands of peat and build reed houses on them. They also construct boats with reeds. When disputes arise between members of the village, they simply cut the dissenting member from the island with a large two-man saw (such as you would have seen in the lumberyards of the Old West).

It was particularly interesting to watch them cook small fish (4-5 inches long) by sandwiching the fish between two layers of hot rocks. This dish is considered a delicacy and could be traded for other merchandise on their Sunday market day.

Lake Titicaca is a point where items can easily stray across the border—there is a large amount of smuggling activity in the area.

Tomorrow, we will head to La Paz, Bolivia.

February 14
Waking early in the morning, we left Puno and the beautiful view of the lights shining on Lake Titicaca:

We headed out of town before the market traffic began…

and passed fish farms, which are spread along the length of the lake. The nets, which extend below the water and are suspended by pontoons, contain trout and king fish (that have the un-kingly length of about six inches).

On the mountainside along the lake, potatoes are grown in stone-terraced fields. The detailed stonework of these terraces may date back to the Incan era.

Obviously, the efficiency of these fields can’t hold a candle to the efficiency of a potato farm in Idaho or Maine where there are huge, level fields and mechanized operations.

Here is an interesting means of transporting one’s wife:

All of the towns along our route had their own market day on Sunday.

For unknown reasons, some of the people here feel the need to decorate their cars:

Another perplexing sight is large number of obese Indian women in traditional dress – this appears to be a serious public health problem here.

Just for the experience, we decided to take a ferry across a small isthmus. The large gaps in the floor of this barge, which is designed to be used by cars, made it a bit precarious for our motorcycles:

The barges are powered only by outboard motor but could manage three cars in addition to our bikes.

As we approached La Paz, we encountered natives in strange costumes – is this some sort of special Sunday dress?

Over a pass, we were able to look down on La Paz – located at an elevation of 12,000 feet, it is the world's highest capital city. La Paz sits in a bowl surrounded by the high altiplano. As it grows, La Paz climbs the hills, resulting in varying elevations from 9,840 ft to 13,450 feet within the city limits. La Paz has a population of approximately 900,000; when combined with the neighboring cities of El Alto and Viacha, Metro La Paz is the most populous urban area of Bolivia with a population of more than 2.3 million.

Entering the city, we observed that this was not a normal Sunday—there was riotous behavior in the streets, and we were bombarded with water balloons, shaving cream, squirt guns and buckets of water as we attempted to pass.

The festival seemed to be something akin to Halloween.

There were some orderly processions on display as well . . .

We headed to the summit of La Cumbre, where there is a large statue of Christ…

But we ultimately headed back through the gauntlet of revelers and were again pummeled with buckets of water.

Someone launched a water balloon from atop a building, nailing me squarely in the back of my helmet, sending water streaming down my back. Fortunately, the balloon had been filled with tap water and not with the water in the ditches alongside the road.

We later learned that we arrived in the midst of Carnaval, which is held this year from February 12 to February 16. The idea of joining in on Carnaval’s evening festivities was appealing, but we were all extremely tired and wound up checking into a reasonable downtown hotel for our two-day stay in the city.

February 15
In the morning, we opted for the thrill ride along the world’s most dangerous road. The North Yungas Road in Bolivia is legendary for its extreme danger: about 100 travelers annually are killed on the road. It descends from 12,000 to 1,000 feet, transitioning from a cool altiplano (high plain) to rain forest.

We headed up the mountain towards La Cumbre (around 13,000 ft) . . .

And found the remnants of revelers from the previous night— an empty bottle of pure grain alcohol:

From the top, we got our first view of the North Yungas:

At the outset, the road was paved and the scenery magnificent:

Here is a sign marking Chulumani, the capital of the Sud Yungas region in Bolivia:

There was a Polish excursion riding mountain bikes along this road – normally the mountain bikers also use the North Yungas route, but with three recent deaths they opted for the safer route.

Having read several web pages about the North Yungas, we are a bit apprehensive and nervous and lower our tires 10 psi each for better grip. . .

. . .but it turns out to be a delightful ride and a beautiful road.

Along the way, we passed memorials for those who have died on the road – this one is from 2007:

In many places, there are blind hairpin turns where the shoulder of the road drops a thousand feet – “the end of the road” takes on a whole new meaning. . .

There are no guard rails…

But the biggest risk by far is the oncoming traffic.

There are various turnouts for passing – but often you are not near one when you need one, and you need to squeeze by (going down the hill is not as nerve-racking as going up it, because generally you are riding on the inside of the pass). But as usually is the case, size matters, and the larger vehicle chooses the side on which it wants to pass.

Normally, large rigs ascending the hill on the outside pass watch the front tire in relation to the falloff; but, as you are watching the tire and the edge, you sometimes don’t see the vehicle ahead of you, and this is what caused the deaths of 100 people on this road when two buses met head-on.

Roger, with Vince right on his tail, came around a corner stopping only a foot in front of a bus with two other buses trailing it. He plans to go to church next Sunday.

There were streams running down steep slopes and under the road.

As we descended in altitude, we ran into patches of rainforest:

There were steep undercuts—not a place to be under when the ground rumbles!

The road is unpaved but has a good rock and gravel surface:

We came across a man with his wife and children who told us about a hotel he had just built on a salt flat in Uyuni, Bolivia. We told him to reserve rooms for us and changed our plans so we could go there.

We had lunch at a lovely mountain chalet which had fallen into decay and was formerly owned by a Bolivian ex-president:

Following lunch, we turned around and headed back up the mountain towards La Cumbre on our return to La Paz. It was the end of the day and the clouds were rolling in.

My bike is looking very dirty, but, more importantly, my tire is balding and I realize I need to be extra-cautious.

As we headed back up the mountain, my fuel gauge read 10 gallons and we had 10 miles to go – perfect calculation. When we returned to La Paz, we again ran into Carnaval and again were pummeled with shaving cream and water.

I looked forward to reaching the hotel and a hot shower.

February 16
Early the next morning, we pulled out of La Paz headed for Oruro. The streets were nearly vacant except for some stragglers from the ongoing Carnaval – yes, it’s still going on.

The best known Carnaval celebration in Bolivia is the Carnaval of Oruro. In Oruro, the Carnaval tells the story of how the Spaniards conquered the Aymara and Quechua populations of the Andes. Some dancers wear costumes that represent the robes worn by Spanish Catholic priests who attempted to convert the indigenous peoples to Catholicism. Other costumes represent the Spanish conquerors themselves, complete with 16th century Spanish helmets, swords, and even horses (which were unknown in the Americas until European explorers brought them over on ships).

The best day to enjoy the Carnaval is the first day. Unfortunately, the traditional accompaniment to Carnaval is vast amounts of alcohol which dancers believe will help them have the energy and stamina to dance; so after the first day, the streets are filled with many heavily doused dancers.

Another interesting fact: in the 1980's the saya (a native Bolivian dance that is also part of the Carnaval of Oruro) was copied by a Brazilian singer called Kaoma. She gave it a little Brazilian twist and it became known around the world as the famous LAMBADA. However, she was later sued by the Bolivian group that owns the song and had to give them credit for it. Other than translate the song to Portuguese, she hadn't even bothered to change the words.

It started raining soon after we left La Paz and didn’t dry out until we reached Oruro, where Carnaval was in full swing at just 11:30 a.m.

There were many people celebrating, like this young couple:

The average age in Bolivia is 25 years.

We were unable to obtain any snacks from the various shops – even though their doors were open; they were chained to keep out the drunken revelers.

Today was our longest mileage day – 500 kilometers – much of it on a marginally improved dirt road. It was a high plateau road with a minimum of curves.

It was moderately good grazing land, and although the underbrush didn’t look particularly delectable, these llamas didn’t appear to mind . . .

There were many llamas along the road, adult and young (cria) . . .

They like to loom at the edge of the road with a look in their eye that suggests they may dart across at any moment. We took care to stare them down – like you would a NYC taxi driver – but we still chose to ride on the other side of the road.

It is very important to aim your gaze far ahead (also a good principle for business and life) and concentrate on the clear areas rather than the hazards. If you focus on the hazards, somehow you are drawn to them. In one of the dry patches, I saw a dust devil on the side of the road and headed out to chase it. I ended up in a streambed because my focus was on the dust devil, not the terrain. When attempting to get out of the streambed I dumped the bike, and Helge came to help me right it. We have a rule about what constitutes a fall, and it has a lot to do with principles with which you are familiar—for example, if a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound? Or alternatively, if a man washes dishes and his wife is not there to witness it – did it really happen? We apply this same principle to falling – if it hasn’t been photographed, it didn’t really happen – and I’m hoping that Helge was not quick on the shutter.

On the first section of road, the pastures were green and at times even looked lush . . .

But as we rode on, it became more desert-like with only a smattering of livestock:

Both sections of road were generally between 12,000 and 13,000 feet in altitude. The last 160 km of this road, which was under construction, had portions blocked off, forcing us to go overland to bypass the barriers. Parts of this stretch were violently rutted – it obviously hadn’t been graded in ages – and this vibration wore down both Roger’s and my wrists and ripped the rear fender (attached to the trailing link) from Roger’s bike.

Helge lost the same piece from his bike yesterday. The road was sprinkled with sandy patches, which are difficult to take at low speeds, with turns covered in gravel that needed to be carefully negotiated. My rear tire is balding in the center, so I need to be particularly careful and angle the bike slightly to get better traction on the corners.

At one point, we encountered a water crossing that was up to four feet deep – I was amazed that the bikes handled this without stalling. We came upon a small lake with pink flamingos feeding from the bottom:

Although the road seemed to go forever, it was a fabulous ride.

Several days earlier, we met a man who managed a hotel in Uyuni, Bolivia, on the edge of a salt flat lake who convinced us to pay it a visit. The lake’s area stretches 100 x 60 miles – supposedly the largest nearly-flat feature on Earth and is used to measure satellite distance (there is only a 50cm variation in height over the 100 mile length).

The hotel was indeed spectacular. It was made entirely from bricks of salt quarried from the nearby lake; even some of the furniture was made from salt, and the floor was covered with a thick layer of salt granules. . .

We each had a trout dinner that was superb, and tomorrow we will tour the salt flats and head for Potosi, previously a gold mining center in Bolivia.

February 17
We arose early and met up with our two guides at 6:00 a.m. We headed out in the salt-protected vehicle toward the flats that stretch out as far as the eye can see.

It was a beautiful sight as the sun came up:

The water from the mountains drains down onto the flats. This car picked up several inches of water as it made its way across:

Despite the water, here is Vince in his sandals taking pictures:

Only at the end of the summer are the flats completely dry.

The locals dig down into the beds of salt and make piles which they will haul away when they dry for their own use – a tiny-scale operation when compared to the two Lake Erie salt mines that operate 2000 feet below the lake.

A mile or two out on the flats is the original salt flat hotel that failed because people didn’t want to drive their cars out onto the flats:

There were colorful flags there from many nations – but there were no United States flags:

We loved our guides, who were enthusiastic and knowledgeable:

They suggested different poses for pictures and took a shot of the group in mid air . . .

and some of me street fighting with one of the guides:

The sand is abrasive and not favorable to vehicles—here is a tire from the car of one of the hotel guests:

We finished the tour and headed out for Potosi. We were all short on gas and came upon a gas station with a 25-car waiting line that didn’t move an inch in over half an hour. This is reminiscent of the 1973 gas lines in California.

We met up with some nice people while waiting in line. Pictured below is a French couple who has been on the road since September and is heading south until “the money runs out.” They went through the Amazon in September on motorcycles until the road ran out and took a boat the rest of the way – this is beginning to sound like our next trip. They said they felt safe there but always followed Harriet Ballard’s rule of never traveling at night.

We also met a spectacular couple from Alberta, Canada who were on a one-year walkabout with their two sons, 11 and 9 years of age. They embodied the entire hippie package – the peace symbol around the neck and the Volkswagen camper. They camp about half of the time and stay in motels the rest. This would be a transformational trip for kids this age – they have been home-schooling along the way.

We rode off into the desert and back onto the dirt road.

We drove the rest of the day until arriving in Potosi in southern Bolivia. It is a nice town with inordinate number of young people.

We drove the rest of the day and arrived at Potosi, Bolivia. This is an old silver mining town, has a large university and a significant number of young people. The Indians here look much different than those in La Paz. In La Paz the people who dressed traditionally (the Charlie Chaplin hat, colorful blouse, flared skirt – approximating the shape of a Christmas tree with a head on top) were mostly obese – approximately 80%. In Potosi the look is dramatically different. I asked the hotel clerk about this and she explained that the Indian tribe in La Paz is more traditional and that being obese is actually a desired featured; and those that are not obese add padding to simulate the look. In Potosi, she explained, the change has happened quickly, within the last generation and a half. The women have gone from the Christmas tree profile to tight jeans and a skinny look. The traditional dress cannot compete with the American media image which is plastered all over their TV.
I wondered if there was an “in-between” time when the perfect style was to be the appropriate weight rather than like that of a Christmas tree or a skeleton.
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