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Uyuni, Bolivia
September 12, 2004

La Paz to Potosi

La Paz, Bolivia, looking down from the rim of the AltiplanoTo be fair, Im not fond of big cities on a motorcycle; particularly big Latin cities. There have been some exceptions, Guadalajara, Mexico, which I found to be beautiful, comes to mind, but generally they are terribly congested, the traffic is unbearable, and because of a lack of street signs I find it impossible to find my way around. Frequently Im forced to resort to my taxi solution.

So La Paz is no different. With a population of over a million, the city is tightly constricted in a bowl about 300-400m (1,000-1,200) below the rim of the surrounding Altiplano. The core of the city is in the center of the bowl and it spreads up the flanks of the crater, right to the top of the rim.

The traffic is some of the worst that Ive ever encountered, with the streets positively clogged with white Toyota minivans, which are used as a private bus system. In each van, at the top of his voice to be heard above the other traffic, a caller hangs out the sliding side door and in rapid-fire Spanish shouts out the destination for his van. With dozens of these vans trapped on any given block, the result is the most annoying din imaginable.

When I finally find the hostal, I discover that I must mount four steps to a small landing, then another two steps to get the bike securely into the courtyard. (Wheres a camera when you need it?) The receptionist calls a maintenance man who in turn brings two six-foot long, badly worn 2 x 6 boards, which Im supposed to ride up. Imagine riding a 650 pound (as loaded) motorcycle up a 2 x 6! It would have to be someone better than me. I ask for the 2 x 6s to be laid length wise to create smaller steps, we add some tiles for additional steps, then with the help of three men we ride and lift the bike into the hotel.

Add to all of this the fact that not much English is spoken, that there is a large and very obvious military presence, and I concur with an America graduate student, now three years in Bolivia working on a PhD in anthropology, and a guest at the hostal, who describes La Paz as edgy.

Im worried about the tail rack again, and although the rebar installed in the Inca Solution continues to hold, the top box seems to have more bounce than it did. Im sure the bouncing will eventually break the weld or snap the bolts that are holding the rear fender and taillight assembly in place. Also, Ive been nearly four weeks on the road by myself, and I miss Jan and the rest of my family a lot. Finally, Ive heard and read horror stories of the roads in southern Bolivia hundreds of miles of gravel and dirt. Sohello, La Paz!

A village on the road between Oruro and PotosiBut Ive got things to do, so after moping around for a half day, I set about it. Theres an Aero Argentina ticket office just a few blocks from the hostal and I easily change my flight date out of Buenos Aires. ATMs dispense cash in both US dollars and bolivianos, so I replenish my cash. In the meantime I decide that I need to empty the top box of all weight, and to accomplish that donate some guide books and maps to the hostal library, toss some unnecessary equipment, and trust the Bolivian postal system with a package for home.

Again I remove the top box to determine how much more damage has been done, and in the process find a way to strap the box to the rebar to mitigate the bouncing. Now with nothing in the top box, I realize that worst case is that I eventually leave it by the side of the road and strap the fender and taillight assembly to the frame. Mentally, that gives me a big lift.

Ive also come to terms with the roads. Depending on which route I take, I have between 600 and 800 miles to ride to reach Argentina, where Ive been advised that the main roads are paved. With the extra week I have a full seven days to cross the south of Bolivia. I set out.

On to Potosi

Its just 120 miles across the Altiplano to Ururo, and Ive heard the road is paved, so I get a nice early start, clear the two military checkpoints with a wave of the hand, leave La Paz and head south. Not only is the road paved, but less than ten miles south of La Paz its newly paved. With the exception of some construction, its a ribbon of new asphalt all the way to Ururo, and I make the 120 miles in three hours, clearing the far side of Ururo by noon.

The mint at Potosi, Casa Real de la Moneda.  Nobody seems to know why Baccus adorns this entrance.Generally I dont eat lunch when Im riding, not wanting to waste the daylight, but Ill make a five-minute stop for cookies or candy and some water. Well outside of Ururo I stop at the last tienda de barrio (literally, the neighborhood store) before the highway heads for the desert and on to Potosi. Neither cookies nor chocolate are in inventory, so I drop my standards considerably and ask for a banana. Several bunches look quite nice. Uno boliviano, says the old lady in full Indian dress, sitting in an aging plastic chair. Si, I say, and reach for a one-boliviano coin (approximately USD $0.12.) Gracias, she says, and hands me the bunch. No, I protest, as I pull a single banana from the bunch and hand the rest back. She is clearly perplexed, as twelve cents buys the whole bunch. Figuring that one banana isnt enough for lunch I ask for a roll (they serve great bread rolls in Peru and Bolivia) and say cuanto questo, asking the price. Clearly embarrassed by the one-sided transaction, the old lady hands me the bread, a second banana, and sends me on my way. I swing my leg over the Beemer, quickly punch through six gears and head across the Altiplano at about seventy miles per hour on a great road. Things are looking up in Bolivia.

Ive mentioned the Altiplano at least twice before without an explanation, and as this is essentially a travelogue and not a geography dissertation, please excuse me as I rely on my Lonely Planet guide and verbal information for many of my facts and figures.

The Altiplano is a high plateau that stretches about five hundred miles from southeastern Peru around Lake Titicaca, south to northern Chile and Argentina. Its primary features are extreme dryness and high altitude (averaging around 3,700m [just over 12,000,]) although it is as high as 4,600m (15,000) in its far southern reaches. (Note: I may have misstated the elevation in an earlier journal. 4,600m (12,000) appears to be about the average elevation.) So in laymens terms, it is a very high desert that is cold, windy and sparsely populated. Im fortunate to be visiting in September, one of the milder months of the year.

As I ride the seventy miles south from Oruro to the village of Challapata, the best visual description I can muster, is that the Altiplano most resembles the Great Basin of the western United States, and more specifically Route 20 (the Loneliest Road in America) across central Nevada, except 6 8,000 higher. The flat desert floor, windswept and with little vegetation save sagebrush and some grass, gives way to low hills at a distance of a few miles. Some sheep, llamas and alpacas graze on the barren land, helping to sustain the few Indians that dare to call this high desert home. A few adobe houses dot the landscape. The road is good, though, and I continue on to Potosi at a decent speed.

At Challapata, engulfed in a dust storm as I pass through, the main road abruptly turns east and through the mountains of the Cordilleras de Azanaques and de los Frailes (that reach heights of 5,200m [17,000]) for the last 210km (130 miles) into Potosi. Its a lonely road, with only two or three small villages of adobe houses as a reminder of human existence. In turn I get rain, sun breaks, rain, sleet and sun again as I make my over the 4,300m (14,000) pass that leads to Potosi. The highway that Im told was rough gravel as little as a year ago is now brand new asphalt. For that Im thankful, as Im able to complete the 550km (340 miles) from La Paz to Potosi is less than eight hours. Not only is it nice to put some miles behind me, but also the good road and good progress gives my spirits a lift.

A word about Potosi

School kids in Potosi clamor to have their picture takenAt an altitude of 4,090m (13,200) and a population of over 100,00, Potosi is reputed to be the worlds highest city of its size. Also, for a time during Spanish rule it was the largest and most wealthy city in South America because a mountain right behind town was loaded with silver; discovered around 1545. The Spanish seized the small mine, developed it, and established a mint (Casa Real de la Moneda) that produced silver coins beginning in 1572 until it was finally closed and turned into a museum around 1960. In the meantime, Bolivia won its independence from Spain in 1825, so coins from this mint were produced both for Spain and Bolivia. Of course the silver eventually played out, and while limited silver mining continues on a small scale, the local economy now revolves around the extraction of tin and other minerals.

Im only in Potosi for the night, but enjoy the city with its narrow streets and colonial buildings dating from the 16th and 17th centuries. Friday morning, before leaving for Uyuni, I take the time to tour Casa Real de la Moneda. Were reminded during the tour, but Im quoting directly from Lonely Planet that between 1545 and 1825 as many as eight million African slaves and Indians died in the extraction and production of silver as a result of the appalling conditions in the Potosi mines.