BOLIVIA ON A SUZUKI DR650: PART 2
BY: OLIVIER DE VAULX
The town of Sucre, Bolivia is the constitutional center of the country, and home of the most ancient university on the continent. Its glorious past is still visible in the colonial buildings and the crowd of occidental people walking the streets, shopping in luxury boutiques, or hanging out at cafes. Thousands of students are flocking to the parks downtown, most of them in a school uniform. Spending a day off the bikes here, visiting the Museum of Indigenous Art, or browsing the aisles of the indoor market is a feat after days of hard-core riding in the jungle and the mountains. Our hotel is an unexpected oasis of luxury after the rudimentary lodging of the past few days and we feel awkward having a delicate breakfast with pastries.
All good things coming to an end, we leave Sucre the next day to reach Potosi, once one of the biggest and richest cities in the world and now still the epicenter of the mining industry in Bolivia. Since the mid 16th century, the Cerro Rico mountain has been explored by European companies who built colossal fortunes and financed the industrial revolution. Today, the dome of the mountain is a crazy maze of tunnels going in every direction and the city still lives on the extraction of minerals such as zinc, lead, tin, and silver. Shutting down the DR650 engines and wearing large protective pieces of equipment, we approach the mining site on foot, our hearts pounding under the simple effort of the walk.
We’re above 13,000ft and every movement costs us dearly. After buying bags of coca to share with the miners, we enter the site and start a conversation with young men waiting for the next shift. They’re friendly, chewing the pain-killing coca leaves to keep the hunger and the fatigue away, and find the strength to smile at our poor small-talk attempts. They explain that now the big corporations and the government abandoned the mines, the whole operation is thus managed by local cooperatives, which explains the lack of modern equipment. A few hundred yards away, we witness two men in their twenties pushing by hand a 4,000 pound wagon full of minerals.
There’s no way we could pull off such physical effort at this altitude without risking a heart attack, especially not on a 72-hour shift, but these two guys are doing that Herculean task without stopping. After emptying their wagon, and since there’s only one rail, we see them removing theirs from the path of another loaded one, just to put it back once the opposite traffic passed by. We’re speechless, and the statue of the devil, smoking a cigarette and surrounded by soda cans that we find in the tunnel, cannot lighten our mood. The miners who feel the need to celebrate rituals in front of this statue in these dark tunnels have a life expectancy of only 41 years.
Leaving Potosi to go back on the plateau, and barely able to think about the minerals contained inside our phones batteries, we ride the little Suzuki’s on a good paved road through a plateau that evokes Arizona: thousands of cacti surround us, and as the falling sun brings pink colors on the hills we could believe we’re back in the USA. The illusion doesn’t last. After the small town of Tupiza, we turn our bikes toward Argentina. A puncture caused by a huge acacia needle stops our charge towards the border, and since we have no tools, we wait for the support vehicle, an indestructible Land Cruiser, to show up with the mechanics. Once the tube is swapped for a new one, the rest of the ride is done at a good pace on a vast plateau with a 360 view of the surrounding summits. The border finally materializes in the form of a large river cutting the red mountains in half. If the colors are reminiscent of Utah, the scenery is wider and wilder, and breathtaking to say the least.There’s no fence between the two countries and it feels surreal to think that the landscape in front of us belongs to another flag. Taking our time to follow the river and therefore the border as much as we can, enjoying the warm colors of the red rocks as the sun settles, we enter the small village of Rio Secco just before dusk.
Our host welcomes us in front of a building he built himself to accommodate tourists. It’s rudimentary and barely enough to protect us from the biting cold, but the kindness of this man and the big barbecue we start right away transforms what could have been a cold and miserable night into a real feast. The Argentinian meat is soft and tasty and, once covered by three layers of blankets, we sleep like babies.
The next day is under the sign of geological curiosities. Out of Rio Secco, we pass red hoodoos like the ones of Bryce Canyon and keep climbing toward Ciudad Roma. From a distance, impressive rock formations taller than 90 feet look like ruins of ancient temples, giving their name to the place. The place is amazing to visit, even with the cold wind blowing and drowning the temperatures way below freezing levels. We sit for a while behind a wall of rocks, protected from the wind and soaking up the warm rays of the sun. A couple of condors fly overhead, a rare sight we enjoy without talking. The peacefulness leads way to gratefulness as we thank our guide for this detour. Getting back on the bikes at the end of the afternoon we add on the last layers we have and start the engines to head toward Guadalupe. The village is built between two mountains with clay bricks, and the night is so cold that we put blankets over the bikes, to prevent the oil from freezing. By dinner time, we sit close to each other in the crude shelter of our host’s kitchen and share a bowl of soup with quinoa. The wind is still strong and whistles through the imperfect roof, but it doesn’t prevent anybody from sleeping. We’re exhausted and we know that tomorrow will be challenging.
In the morning, we start by breaking the ice on our first river crossing of the day, our frozen fingers barely able to hang on to the handlebar. Even though our bodies are kept warm by the multiple layers of our Legion equipment, we can’t wait for the sun to warm us up. But be careful what you wish for! By noon, we find ourselves sweating on a technical single track at the bottom of an incredible canyon. Clutching our DR650s over boulders, rocky river crossings, and steep climbs, we don’t give up, knowing that Maurice promised us a reward for such hard work. Thirty minutes of exhausting riding later, we reach the ruins of a five-century-old mining center. The archaeological site itself is interesting, but the old stones are not the most important or surprising fact.
What makes this place so special is that we’re welcomed by the whole population of the next village, who came by foot just to meet us. Astonished, we then understand that they’ve never received or seen any tourists before! After the mayor’s speech, we’re invited to dance by the girls while a band plays pan-pipes and drums. It’s charming and the genuine laughter of the kids touches everyone deeply. The villagers discovered the ruins just a few months ago, and a 70 year old farmer went to town on foot to collect pieces of information about the place. He’s our guide today and reads his notes and answers questions. We can see how tourism can have a positive impact on small communities like this one! After the visit, we enjoy a lunch consisting of soup and dry llama meat. To be honest, this tastes more like cardboard than beef jerky, but that’s probably the price to pay for meat that can be kept out of plastic or the fridge for years.
While we buy some gloves and beanies woven from vicuñas’ wool, the Bolivian antelope with soy-like wool, Maurice unveils crates of books he brought in the chase vehicle to offer to the school. The joy of these people in front of this small gift is almost heartbreaking. That’s the exact moment when we decided to push more of the Moto Trails Bolivia resources toward helping communities in the backcountry. Without this promise made to ourselves, we couldn’t have left these people without feeling like we were letting them down.
Riding back in the canyon is a bit faster, since we now know the good lines, and we start the ride to Quetena. Although the trails are a bit wider, the end of the day will not get any easier. As the dirt road gains some elevation, the terrain becomes rockier, with flat stones raising under the weight of our wheels and hitting our skid plates or our feet. Wearing good boots in these conditions is vital! The wind is even stronger than the day before and it’s hard to keep the bikes in the chosen lines. On the plateau, the tracks somehow multiply and we navigate with the GPS, choosing trails that follow more or less our bearing. It is during these hard conditions that we pass by our first laguna, a small but highly colored mountain lake in the middle of nowhere. It’s tempting to stop but the wind destroys our hopes of a quiet snack break.
Riding further, we finally find a cliff near another laguna where we can eat some chocolate bars without shivering. Reaching the famous Laguna Celeste is another challenge. The rocky trail wanders over a large plateau, and passes in between other lakes swept by the storm-like wind. The 10 miles to reach the laguna’s shore are tiring but the water’s turquoise color looks supernatural and makes it worth it. Climbing back is not easier, and when we finally reach Quetena in the evening, it’s hard not to fall asleep in the hot shower! During dinner, Maurice gives us a quick breakdown of the days ahead. More challenging rides in some different landscapes are to be expected, and this is what you guys will discover in a future issue of Upshift!
Riding in Bolivia
Flying to La Paz from the USA requires at least one stop, usually at Bogota or Columbia, since the airport can only be reached by night because of the elevation. Visa requirements depend on the country of origin, with US citizens having to pay a $100 fee. It’s easy to change cash at local ATMs, with one dollar being roughly equivalent to 7 bolivianos. High elevation, temperature change, and rough terrain are reasons why these motorcycle adventures are not for beginners but rather for experienced riders. The bikes are Suzuki DR650s in perfect condition and equipped with Trail Tech Voyager Pro GPSs. A 4x4 vehicle driven by two mechanics follows the group to provide assistance and carry the rider’s luggage. All information can be obtained on Moto Trails Bolivia’s website: www.mototrailsbolivia.com/en