Leaving Bolivia: Forty-Eight Years Ago This Week

22nd January 2023 |

Riding in Bolivia

Forty-eight years ago this week, I was about to leave La Paz, the capital of Bolivia. Travelling with me but separately were Bruno and Antoine, two Frenchmen in a small white four-horse Renault van whom I’d met coming into Bolivia a week earlier. These are my notes.

January 14

Bruno, Antoine and I agree to meet at 7am to leave. I wake at five. It’s pouring. The sound of the rain drumming down on the tin roof depresses me. In my dozing state I even slip and lose my footing – in bed. I walk over to their flat [we were in separate houses] at seven. 12 Frenchmen in it. It’s got a terrible rancid smell. Filthy mess. They agree it’s better to leave later. At 10am the rain stops and there’s some sun. But the Renault won’t start. When at last, after changing the oil, cleaning the carburetor and plugs, it does start, it begins to rain again. There’s bread to buy, money to change. Then up to the big bus and lorry concourse on the altiplano, 800 meters up. There’s fog and rain and mud everywhere. The [government] controls are even harder to endure.

The road is semi-ripio [gravel] but plenty of mud. I begin to get the hang of it, but it’s hard work. All combinations of surface present themselves, Then cloud thins and eventually, as we approach lake Titicaca and the hills, the sky clears a bit. Beautiful light as we follow the lake shore. Reeds in the water, many rich-looking plots of irrigated land, sailing boats. Come down at last to the ferry. Long boats with Johnson outboards. Some trouble maneouvering off the boat backwards. Costs me ten pesos, then another 45. More riding through mountains and along the lake. The water is a glorious blue. The contours are very appealing, The grandest lake and mountain combination yet – though Bariloche was more hospitable, having trees. No trees here, just surfaces interacting.

Round one corner an extraordinary sight: A man bending over flinging stones off the road, arms like windmills, cloak flying. Three handfuls, then he stands up, takes his hat off and holds it out to me with the most sly and ingratiating grin. But he was too slow to start his pantomime. I was just in time to see him stoop He was not young, but vigorous. The Frenchmen, after me, got the same performance but this time he stood in their path, with menacing gestures, and they felt obliged to give him bread.

Indian women, still with bowler hats (why?) and shawls, rather than ponchos, fully pleated skirts in blue and crimson to below the knee with many petticoats also coloured, thick woolen stockings, leather sandals, usually a coloured blanket flung over their backs with some kind of burden, or baby, in it. And often spinning yarn as they go, from a handful of raw yarn onto a spindle in the other hand.

After following the shore we cut across a promontory to come down to Copacabana, a small town between two hills on the lake shore – oddly similar to the one at Rio at a distance. Nice looking town, but all the hotels are dreadful. The most luxurious-looking hotel is like a barracks inside – 25 pesos. We cooked a huge dinner in the room, regardless of regulations. Next day the promised hot water never materialised. The manager, a strangely shambling Indian, wanted us to pay for the garage. With some bad feeling we parted.

January 15th

The road from Copacabana went straight up a steep hill. The Renault couldn’t make it – even with a mighty run-up, even in reverse – so they took a long diversion, got stuck in a bog, and eventually reappeared round the hill 45 minutes later. After a short way we met a police control. He told us we were not allowed to leave without a stamp from the police at Copacabana. Engagingly he produced the stamp we should have. Alas, he said, if we didn’t want to go back to Copacabana (Heaven forbid) we would have to pay 10 pesos. We had no pesos. A dollar would do. A very neat trap, but not very expensive.

Eventually we got to Peru and waited endlessly for immigration. Here is where we first met the raft of Germans who were to hound us all the way to Puno and beyond, filling the hotels, eating all the food, and covering me with mud from their taxis as they passed. There were two rivers to ford. The second, by far the fastest and deepest so far (about two feet) was too much for me. I stopped halfway across but managed to stand the bike upright. Then some police drove past me, sending tidal waves. I waded to the shore with camera and bags, and back. Then a driver threw me a piece of cord. I tied another one to it. Two Peruvians and a German helped to haul me out. As the Frenchmen arrived I was wringing out my socks and emptying my boots. They got across the river but couldn’t get out. So I had to get back in the water and pull.

Riding in Peru

We drove the last 20K in the dark, but fortunately here it was dry. In Puno great difficulty finding hotel rooms – the Germans had them all. Someone did find us a hotel. The courtyard was an extraordinary labyrinth of makeshift constructions, rickety steps and drums of water. There was one room and three beds. The bike was outside in the passage. We felt like having a grand meal to offset the horrible hotel, but the Germans had eaten all the food. We found a chicken take-away and ate like savages – but with two bottles of good wine.

The hotel manager had a nightwatchman who slept just inside the door. He came into the room when we were fast asleep, switched on the light and said the bike had to be moved. I told him to move it then and went back to sleep. At six he came back, switched on the light to say he was “revisando” everything. We cursed and tried to sleep again.

January 16th

From Puno next day was fine most of the way, then a hailstorm. I left B&A behind me with a punctured tyre.

65 km to Sicuani. First 35 km were fast and dry – the last 30 km were the worst ever. Deep red mud, mostly in the dark, with corrugations. Reminded me of World War I battlefield. Craters everywhere with just a lacework of road showing. In one village it looked impassable. I tried riding on rough ground but fell and couldn’t pick it up because ground just slipped away under my feet. With help got going again.

B&A turned up late. To our surprise Sicuani had the beginnings of a luxury hotel. There was hot water (a little), a separate dining room, a llama, two gorgeous parrots. We did quite well, though the food was less than brilliant. Next day, to Cuzco…