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Ekke Writes

We crossed the bridge over the Rio Desaguadero, an outlet of Lake Titicaca, and entered Bolivia amid a buzz of bicycle carts ferrying cargo back and forth across the border on Thursday, January 5.  A police officer indicated we should go to aduana to get the bike papers sorted first and then go to migracion for our own passports.  This seemed contrary to how it has been at most border crossings so far, so Audrey lined up at passport control while I went over to aduana.  Sure enough, passports first.  The line was long and moved slowly so that it took about an hour to get the passports stamped.  We then took the passports, vehicle registration and our new migracion paper to a photocopy shop to make copies for the customs official.  Unfortunately, Audrey received two copies of her registration paper, rather than one copy of each document so it took a while to get it all sorted out without having to pay for another copy.  A bit over an hour and half after crossing the bridge we rode away into Bolivia.  A new country is always exciting since we just never know what to expect.  This was no different and within a few hundred metres of the border a pile of dirt blocked the road with no detour signage leaving us to wonder how to get out of town.  Accompanied by a pack of dogs (the welcoming committee?) we eventually found our way to the highway and were on our way.  The road was in fair repair and the few other drivers we encountered seemed to be driving less aggressively than their counterparts in Peru.  All in all, combined with the sunlight streaming over our shoulders, lighting up Lake Titicaca to our left, it was a magical ride to Tiahuanacu.  The Akapana Hotel was basic but clean and boasted a fantastic view of the Akapana ruins of the Tiwanaku civilization.  The third floor dining room had the best view and I took the opportunity to try llama for dinner.  It wasn’t nearly as tender as the alpaca I had tried in Peru.  Thomas, an American amateur archeologist living in Munich, struck up a conversation from a couple of tables over.  He had been in Bolivia for four months and was doing some archeological work at the Tiwanaku ruins.  Of special interest to him was that some of the stones had up to 150 perfect 3 millimetre diameter holes.  His theory was that there was no way that this civilization could have created these holes with the tools that everyone thought they had at the time.  They must have had something to drill those holes so perfectly, some kind of drill.

Audrey is pretty happy after an hour and a half to complete the entry into Bolivia

Beautiful riding with Lake Titicaca to the left as the sun breaks through

The view from the dining room of the Kalasasaya pyramid of the Tiahuanacu civilisation

Since it was less than 70 kilometres to our hotel in La Paz we spent Friday morning exploring the ruins of Tiahuanacu.  The tickets for 100 bolivianos ($20 CDN) allowed us entry to two sets of ruins and two museums.  We started our visit at the ceramics museum and then walked across the street to the Kalasasaya pyramid, which had been partially reconstructed.  Truth be told, these ruins required more imagination than most to get anything out of them, there just wasn’t very much there.  What I found really interesting was the quality of the stonework.  It was similar to the Inca in how it fit together very precisely without the use of mortar but predated the Inca by about a thousand years.  We saw our dinner companion working away at the top of the pyramid, doing some measurements, but we never did see his mysterious three millimetre holes.  After we finished exploring the Akapana site we had a quick tour of the second museum, which had a diorama of the site and a number of artefacts.  The highlight was a three metre tall statue that had been on display outside in La Paz for many years but was returned to the site for protection from the elements.  We walked back to the hotel, checked out and then rode over to the Pumapunku site where the ruins were, if anything, in a more ruinous state than the Akapana site.  Still, imagining the site as it must have been with Lake Titicaca lapping at its shore and filling its canals provided a powerful image.  The ride to La Paz was punctuated by a sudden cloudburst as a veritable wall of water swept down from the hills and across the high plains.  Fortunately we had stopped at a gas station (only 84 octane available) when the deluge hit and were able to don the raingear under the awning just as we were about to enter El Alto, the new city perched on the top of the valley that holds La Paz.  The city riding wasn’t terribly difficult and were able to adapt to the drivers’ behaviour easily enough.  Some mapping programs (Google Maps and Maps with Me) had suggested we go straight down into La Paz from El Alto, but a quick look at the suggested route looked like it would involve a lot of narrow, steep streets so we opted to take the expressway the long way around instead.  While it added about ten kilometres to the journey it was easy riding, until we were just a few hundred metres from the hotel that is.  Traffic came to a grinding halt and when we got to an intersection, a police officer was directing traffic to a side street.  The side streets were naturally all jammed up with redirected traffic so it was a bit of a struggle with the one-way, congested streets to get going in the direction of the hotel.  The GPS was super handy for this, as every time we took an alternate road in the convoluted network it recalculated the route so that we could at least keep moving in the right general direction.  After an hour to travel two kilometres we did make it to the Casa Prado but the adventures weren’t quite finished.  There was no parking on site so we had to go to a public parkade which was quite close as the condor flies but riding the bikes was a complex exercise in navigating one-way streets.  The hotel staff tried to explain the directions without a lot of success (I really must learn Spanish) so I showed him the GPS and had him point out the parkade on the device.  It was 1.5 kilometres around Parque Urbano Central to get there but only a couple of hundred metres to walk back to the hotel after we parked the bikes.  After freshening up we went for a walk and found the reason for the massive traffic jam.  The main road had been closed to set up the stage for the Dakar rally contestants; they would be coming down the same expressway we had just come down.  Plaza San Francisco, where the stage was located, was already jammed with people.  What would it be like tomorrow?

At the Kalasasaya pyramid

The Andean Cross

Thomas, the amatuer archeologist, at work at Tiahuanacu

Note the stonework, predating the Inca by a thousand years

Recovered artefacts protected and on display in the museum

Riding to La Paz from Tiwanacu the storm clouds look quite threatening

Looking down on La Paz from El Alto

Wandering the streets of La Paz

The staging area for the Dakar Rally at Plaza San Francisco is already crowded the day before

Public, interactive art on the streets of La Paz

Dakar coverage was everywhere, and on television (not just the sports channels but local TV as well) we found out that the stage for today, January 7, was cancelled due to the rain.  Apparently the bivouac was a mud bath and vehicles were having difficulty getting in and out.  The Casa Prada hotel was also home to an NBC Sports crew (Michael, the camera man, was from Ontario!) and they also had a message that the stage would be cancelled from their contact at the bivouac.  So we went to the platform set up at Plaza San Francisco to see what was going on and it was already crowded with spectators at 10:30.  If the race wouldn’t have been cancelled, the leaders would arrive after about 4:00 PM and most of the rest would be arriving well after dark.  With only 250 kilometres to ride, the first competitors were now expected at 1:00 so we joined the throngs of people and tried to find a good spot with a view.  The atmosphere was electrifying, we had never been in a city or country so immersed in a motorsports event (for example, the F1 in Budapest was pretty much invisible).  People lined the route coming into and going out of La Paz for kilometres in either direction and from the big screen TV it was obvious that in other towns and cities along the route people had also come out to cheer on the competitors.  A few support vehicles started trickling into the plaza (each to much fanfare) and while that was happening, parades of people in costumes kept the crowd entertained.  The costumes were absolutely incredible and may or may not have had some indigenous influence.  There was a bit of a lull after the parades, with support vehicles continuing to arrive, but by 1:30 some of the motorcycle competitors came down the expressway into Plaza San Francisco riding on a wave of cheering and applause.  These were the real heroes of the Dakar.  I can’t imagine doing even one day of the twelve day event.  Before the cancellation, today’s ride was supposed to be 786 kilometres long with 527 kilometres of that being off-road racing.  I already find a 786 kilometre day to be pretty long on good highways.  In any case, the crowds lining the streets seemed to appreciate the superhuman effort that the riders were putting in.  After watching a number of riders come in over the course of an hour we decided to change vantage points and walk around a bit.  The crowds were thick and it was difficult working our way around the plaza, getting pushed around a bit, but we held our own as we were wearing our motorcycle jackets for a bit of street cred.  Soon the quads joined the bikes coming in and then the cars and trucks with a continuous stream of vehicles coming for the entire afternoon.  Of course it is better watching the race on TV but to be surrounded by such ardent fans made the event incredibly memorable for us.  You can find some of the video shot by our new friends at NBC here: Dinner at Joe Bananas was a fun way to wind up the day.  It seems that copyright laws are not rigorously enforced in Bolivia as at Joe Bananas, just like other places we had seen, there were plenty of Disney-themed items.

Streets are closed off for the Dakar Rally

Three beauty queens and one aspiring beauty queen

Parades before the arrival of the competitors

I love these guys!

Best. Spurs.  Ever.

They're really little cymbals

The support vehicles start arriving first

Dutch truck driver De Rooy's support vehicles

The bikes start to come in to huge applause

A couple of the bike competitors waiting to take the stage

The stage where the competitors were greeted by the beauty queens and film crews

The cars after the bikes and quads

Time for a snack?

One of the more ardent fans at the event

The competition trucks start to arrive later in the day

Not strictly Dakar related but you can buy outfits for your dog here

A fun dinner at Joe Bananas

Sunday morning was a rest day for the Dakar teams but the NBC crew was off to do some filming and interviews.  Over breakfast Mike came over and gave us each an official Dakar T-Shirt.  After they had departed we chatted with one of the Paraguayan support teams also staying at the hotel.  Their father and son team had done very well in the extremely difficult navigation stage so everyone was very proud of the young navigator who was now a hero in Paraguay.  After breakfast we wandered up (pretty much any direction was up) into a quaint neighbourhood where the four Calle Jaén museums were located, showcasing everything from art to gold.  Unfortunately all four museums were closed after the Christmas break.  After taking stock of the situation over a cappuccino we walked the quiet streets down to the plaza which had the presidential palace and cathedral.  Sunday in La Paz, like other South American countries we had visited, was quiet with most of the shops closed.  Walking one of these quiet streets we bumped into Thomas, the amateur archeologist we had met at Tiahuanacu.  It’s amazing how small the world seems some days.  The national art museum on a corner of the Plaza Pedro D Murillo was really interesting as it combined historical artefacts with modern and classical art.  Too bad photos weren’t allowed inside as the Venus sculpture in onyx blanco by former La Paz native Marina Núñez del Prado was simply amazing, seeming to glow from within.  After lunch at one of the few open restaurants we walked across the valley, passing by Plaza San Francisco where the Dakar paraphernalia was being disassembled, to the Mercado Negro.  Again things were fairly quiet but at least there were some “witches” supplies available, including llama fetuses.  Burger King seemed the safest option for Sunday dinner.

Walking up Calle Jaén

You can see La Paz climbing up the valley sides in the distance

Entrance to Museo de Etnografia y Folklore, just closing for lunch

The Presidential Palace

Sunday's paper celebrating the marvelous welcome for the Dakar

Love the Jesus art on some of the buses

Mercado Negro you can buy your witch's supplies, like llama fetuses

Audrey Writes

A small crowd had formed as we loaded up our bikes outside the Casa Prado hotel on January 9th. A lady looked at me, looked at my bike, and looked at me again, and said, "Dakar?" I said, "No, from Canada." I still got an approving nod and thumbs up from her, and another lady came and shook my hand. Imagine being a rider in the Dakar and what that must feel like. Later that day, I got to feel like a rider in the Dakar. Leaving La Paz was, at first, super easy as there were no roads closed due to the Dakar and most of those vehicles had left town, and we wound our way up a wide, paved road, quite different from the cobblestone alleys that we had ridden in on. Thomas had warned us of construction in the El Alto area, so we prepared ourselves for some rough roads, but what we were faced with was exacerbated by the recent heavy rains. The road out just ended, with no detour signs in sight so we just wound our way through some small residential streets in the direction of a bridge that would get us to the highway. The bridge that we sought could be seen in the distance and as we got closer we could see that it was also under construction, and impassable. Ekke asked a couple of locals for the way out, and they pointed us toward a road that seemed more mud than anything. Puddles in the lower areas resembled small lakes, but there was nothing for it but to ride through, sometimes sinking into bigger holes, sometimes hitting hidden rocks, the bikes fishtailing through the slippery mud. So it was kind of like riding in the Dakar except there was no one there to cheer us on and it was all over in an hour. Another one of those 'I could kiss the pavement' moments. The road to Copacabana was lovely, winding through green hills and we stopped at a convenience store for a lunch of Pringles chips and cookies. Ekke spotted a tiny Red Bull can in the shop, but on closer inspection of the label it said, 'Red Bill' and did not feel like a liquid. It was gum. Stunning views of dark blue Lake Titicaca greeted us as we wound our way down to the lakeshore.

Departing Casa Prado

Climbing up out of La Paz

Construction detour isn't very well marked

and rather challenging

Ekke enjoys a "Red Bill".  Bolivia doesn't seem to enforce copyright laws.

Approaching the ferry connecting the east and west side of Lake Titicaca

Looks nice enough

Having experienced the Peru side of the lake with the visit to an authentic floating reed island, we wanted to see Lake Titicaca on the Bolivian side. To cross over to the peninsula we rode down to the water's edge and saw about 20 ferries, though I use the term loosely, lined up ready to take passengers over the channel. The flat boats were quite rickety-looking with nothing but two planks for the vehicle's wheels to sit on, but they were loading a big truck on, so when someone waved us over to get onto their ferry, we just rode up the ramp and balanced on the one metre-wide plank. Ekke had to pull his bike forward to make room for a car, and the staff moved some rebar that was balanced on a truck ahead of it, aside, and it had to rest against his bike. Easy on, but not so easy off. As we pulled away from the dock we noticed that the front of the boat was not meant for loading and unloading - we would have to back off the narrow plank to get off the ferry. Also, between the planks was a big drop off, so there was no chance of doing a U-turn on the boat. The plank was too narrow to just roll the bike back when we got to the other side so Ekke got on my bike and duck-walked it backwards while I pulled it back. His bike is much bigger and heavier than mine so we took the saddlebags off, and I could tell the ferry staff were getting annoyed with the time it was taking. So they started helping but pushed it too far, almost off the ramp, until I yelled, "Pare!" a word I had learned on a horse ride in Ecuador, meaning "Stop." Just in time. So, with no bikes ending up in Lake Titicaca, we rode away, in the direction of Copacabana. At the edge of town there was a chain stretched across the road and we couldn't pass unless we paid 20 bolivianos ($4) - the town wanted their cut of the tourist dollars. And a tacky tourist town it was. After riding down a steep gravel pathway and checking into the Torres Hotel, we walked along the beach into town, with jet skiers, swan peddle boaters and trampolinists to the left and fish snack shops, tour operator shacks and souvenir stands to the right. This was not the tranquil Lake Titicaca that I had envisioned. The temperature dropped quite dramatically as the sun went down and downfilled jackets replaced shorts and tank tops. The herb-stuffed trucha or trout at La Orilla Restaurant renewed my spirits.

Well this shouldn't be too bad.  What do you mean, "You have to back off the ferry?"

Yep, everyone has to back off the ferry at the opposite shore

Approaching Copacabana

Le Torres hotel

Another "Jesus Bus"

Inca statues compete for space with paddle boats at the Copacabana beach shore

Early on January 10th, we walked down to the docks and caught a boat to Isla del Sol or Island of the Sun, in a flotilla with six other boats. Our boat held about 30 people, and many of them clambered to the roof where they could sit outside and enjoy the lovely views. The boat trip was scheduled to last for two hours, and we were wondering why it would take so long as the island was not that far away. When we saw how slowly it went, with a small outboard motor to power it, we realized why, and settled in for the long trip. The sun was out when we started, but further along, the skies darkened, and within minutes there was torrential rain. The boat came to a halt so that people from upstairs, already soaking wet, could climb down the ladder and sit inside. Later, when the hail started, the boat stopped again so that the rest of the people could come inside, and it was standing room only inside the boat. Dockside poncho sellers in Cha'llapampa were doing a brisk business in the pouring rain, which was soaking people from the side with the horizontal winds and since I had not brought my rainpants, I paid the 10 bolivianos ($2) for the plastic poncho. It was also a good time for second breakfast and a steaming cup of coffee in a little rustic cafe adjacent to the docks.

Isla del Sol was very sacred to the Incas as they believed it was where the sun god was born and the first Inca people were created. A tiny museum housed a few artefacts like gold statues, goblets and puma statues, and we found a display of photos documenting the discovery of an underwater Inca temple nearby very interesting. The rain let up and we walked along a sandy beach and then up an Incan stone pathway, the crystal clear blue ocean below. Within minutes I was shedding the rain poncho as the sun beat down and we climbed higher, the views becoming ever more spectacular. Our goal was the Chincana Inca ruins where a sacred ceremonial stone, the Piedra Sagrada, sat looking big and flat like a dinner table. A labyrinth of rooms, the Palacio del Inca, covered a hillside with steep steps, narrow passageways and extra short doorways that Ekke really enjoyed. As going downhill was still time-consuming for him, he started the trek down before me, and I explored the palace some more, marvelling at the Incan stone architecture. Our ferry was scheduled to leave at 1:30 PM and we made it there at 1:39, but the boat waited for other tardy passengers and left at 2:00.

Museum at Isla del Sol

Lovely artefacts

The weather clears up nicely as we walk up from Challapampa towards Chincana

Palacia del Inca at Chincana

Mesa Ceremonica thought to have been the site of human and animal sacrifices

Ekke starts back down to the ferry

The boat chugged slowly beside Isla del Sol, the outboard motor dying every now and again and was eventually restarted with a lot of effort by the driver. Isla de la Luna was off in the distance, where the moon was commanded to be formed by the Incan god, Viracocha. We docked at Yumani near the Escalera del Inca or Inca Stairs, which showcased more exquisite Inca design. The stairs led to other sites, but due to time we had to miss them and enjoyed lunch on a balcony overlooking the lake instead. A day was not enough on Isla del Sol and we knew we would have to come back someday to do the island justice. Our 4:00 PM ferry was the slowest one yet, and, unexpectedly, it stopped on the other side of the island to pick up more passengers. We were on the milk run. While we were docked, a few passengers got off, and when we inquired, it turned out that the boat docked for twenty minutes, just enough time to disembark and explore Pilko Kaina, another Inca palace sitting on terraced slopes. Bonus. Back in Copacabana, we couldn't face eating dinner as we had such a late lunch so settled on banana chocolate crepes on a patio overlooking Lake Titicaca. The temperature dropped dramatically so we turned up the heater back in our hotel room and watched the Dakar Rally highlights on t.v.

The reconstructed Inca Stairs near Yumani

A lovely reed boat on Lake Titicaca

Snow capped peaks behind Isla de la Luna

Pilko Kaina ruins at the southern tip of Isla del Sol

Relaxing back at Copacabana

Drat, we missed the blessing of the vehicles ceremony

Checkout took a long time on Wednesday, January 11th as the hotel did not accept credit cards so they said that we could pay with Paypal. After waiting for ages, it didn't work so we used some bolivianos and American cash to pay up. So much for getting an early start on this, a border crossing day. The border was about eight kilometres away and the proceedings went quite quickly on the Bolivian side, with some English-speaking Argentinians pointing us in the right direction for getting the bikes' paperwork and inspection completed. Getting into Peru was not so quick and easy as we stood in a long lineup at migracion for forty-five minutes. With long waits at borders, one tends to run into other travellers, and we chatted with a German rider on a Tenere who owned a small bakery near Leipzig. I also chatted with a Brazilian who had a huge bag precariously perched on his Harley. He and his buddy were trying to ride all the South American countries in three months, so were on a schedule, riding long distances. He told me that the road to Tacna was rough, high on the altiplano, freezing cold and snowy, and they had arrived in La Paz late at night. At aduana or customs we met a father and son from Seattle who had ridden the shortcut route to Puno that we had avoided, and the father had crashed his bike on the dirt road. They were not impressed with the drivers in Peru, especially buses that passed on blind corners, but perhaps we were used to the erratic driving as it didn't seem that bad to us. The wait at customs seemed to be taking forever, and when it was our turn, we realized why, as every time the customs agent typed something into the computer, he would have to wait and wait, as the internet was extremely slow. Finally, he handed our completed temporary import papers for the bikes to another fellow who was not wearing a uniform, who invited Ekke into a back room. The gentleman spoke Spanish and Ekke clearly understood the word 'propina' very well, which means 'tip' - he was asking for a bribe before he would give Ekke the papers. Ekke stood his ground and just said, "No" in a very firm voice. He wasn't going to pay any propina to anyone. After a bit of back and forth, the fellow relented, went and talked to the customs agent who said to just give us our papers back and waved us on our way. After a check of our insurance papers by a police officer as we were riding away, papers which thankfully Ekke had procured through the internet, we finally entered back into Peru.

We'll miss Bolivia and the women in traditional dress

You can go around the world on any kind of bike (this guy was from the Czech Republic)

Just exited Bolivia and entering Peru we meet lots of fellow travellers, from Argentina, Germany and the U.S.

As we had not bought gas in Bolivia because most stations could not sell it to tourists, my bike was on reserve and only had a few kilometres of fuel left. So, I settled for some 84 octane gasohol in the next small town and hoped it would be good enough. As we were so late we decided not to have lunch and just stopped for a roadside snack in front of a convenience store and ate crackers and yogurt while standing by the bikes. The terrain along the road heading west was quite flat at first, with the occasional small village, but then we climbed higher into the isolated altiplano. The scenery was quite dramatic, with snow-covered peaks in the distance, and we rode for hours and hours, the temperature falling to 1 degree Celsius as we climbed to 4800 metres. We felt a few drops of rain and donned our rain gear, but I felt surprisingly warm and cozy with my electric vest cranked to high. A stop on the top of the pass was interesting as we saw herds of llamas and some pink birds off in the distance, which, with the help of the superzoom camera, turned out to be flamingoes standing in a chilly pond. The pavement turned to a gravel road, laced with mud, so it was slow-going for a while, with big trucks passing us as we carefully found a non-slippery way through. Snow lined the highway but disappeared as we descended on a lovely, paved, curvy road with sweeping views which was very fun until a deep fog or neblina set in. Our face shields fogged up, so there was nothing for it but to keep them open so we could see, wiping them constantly with our gloves. Visibility got very poor, with Ekke often disappearing into the fog even though he had his hazard lights on and was only a few metres ahead. As we approached civilization, a huge Christos Redeemer statue appeared through the mist and the clouds parted, affording us views of vineyards in the valley. Down, down we rode, and as we passed a line of vehicles we were both in shock at the powerful performance of the bikes at this elevation, 1500 metres. We had been riding at high elevations for weeks, the bikes had been sluggish, and now we felt the freedom of twisting the throttle and zooming away. The 84 octane fuel in the tanks seemed to work just fine. We pulled into Moquegua just as the sun was going down and dusk settling in, the temperature a pleasant 20 degrees Celsius. As we had not been sure of reaching the city because of our time-consuming border crossing, we had not booked a hotel, but thank goodness the Moquegua Hotel had a room available.

Back in Peru

Goodbye to Lake Titicaca

We wondered how they transported llamas...

Stopping to pick up snacks before heading across the bleak altiplano

Stray dogs in the middle of nowhere

Audrey finds a nice spot to put on her rain booties

Cold and damp

Stopping to have a snack

Chocolate covered almonds! Yum.

Yep, those are flamingos all right!

Hmm, that looks suspiciously like snow


Time to get to a lower elevation

Where we are enveloped in a deep fog

Happy to be out of the fog as we drop down to Moquegua, Ekke praises the Cristos Redeemer statue

The ride past green Pisco grape vineyards along the river was very pleasant the next day but as soon as we left the lush valley, we were faced with a hot, sandy desert that seemed to go on forever. This was the beginning of the Atacama Desert, which would be our constant companion for the next few thousand kilometres. But the 160 kilometre ride to Tacna, on perfect pavement, went very quickly, and the city lay spread out before us in a deep valley, surrounded by sand dunes. It was lovely to arrive at the Casa Andina hotel, and we enjoyed a bit of relaxation time by the pool, recovering from the tough ride the day before. Ekke offered to wash the bikes the next day and took them one by one to a nearby bike wash, where they had a thorough cleaning for 7 soles ($2.40) each. After running a few errands, we had lunch at Da Vinci Cafe, but a few hours later my stomach started flipping and flopping, and all I could do was lay in bed for a couple of days. So we put off leaving but I finally felt well enough to ride on January 15th, in the direction of Chile, our 75th country.

Back in the coastal desert of Peru

See a few more bigger bikes, like this Ducati Multistrada, as we get closer to Chile

Nice to be back with the palm trees after our time at high elevations

Rooftop pool has a great view of the dunes surrounding Tacna

Get the bikes washed before heading to Chile

Map of our route  

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