You're here for a good time, not for a long time.

You're here for a good time, not a long time.

October 17, 2011

Foreign Plates

Our last day in La Paz Charlie and I set off for legendary Death Road.  Originally the only road to a small town called Coroico, the dirt road with thousand foot dropoffs is now a popular tourist attraction.  There are numerous agencies in La Paz that offer bicycle rides down the road... we took motorcycles.  After what we experienced in the badlands of Peru, I wasn´t expecting anything too exciting.

The highway leading to the turnoff proved deadly enough.  It rose to 4,800 meters through thick fog and intermittent rain.  We stopped at several gas stations on the way but none of them would sell to foreign plates.  We were livid, and running out of fuel.  Apparently it´s a law in La Paz that foreigners cannot buy gas... logically. At the second station we met two Austrians on Honda Trans Alps.  They needed gas too so we decided to ride together towards Death Road.  

Eventually we stopped at a roadside shack and inquired about gas.  They had a few liters and we each bought five.  Ten kilometers further we found a gas station that was above the law and filled up.  Two kilometers later was Death Road.  It was an ominous turnoff shrouded in fog and by then the rain was picking up.  The waterproof outers we´re getting clammy and I was worried about my new ´waterproof´ bag.  Nevertheless we started down at a slow pace slipping over the wet rocks.  

For the entire 40 kilometers of dirt and gravel I never saw more than 500 yards in front of me.  The fog was thick and wet.  Looking over the edge was impressive enough without landing below.  You´d peer down into the foliage and it seemed bottomless.  Just rolling fog passing through the deep valley below.  The road was bad, but nothing I´m not used to.  There were plenty of river crossings and waterfalls to ride through.  And of course a slew of cyclists to dodge.  

By the time we got to the bottom the rain was coming down in sheets.  Charlie exchanged information with the Austrians and we headed back towards La Paz on the new ´good´ road.  The new road seemed to take even longer than Death Road and was already severely damaged by the constant rainfall.  The rentention walls on the uphill side had already given out and had been reinforced by rebar.  Climbing back to 4,800 meters soaking wet was even less fun than it sounds.  Fully loaded uphill at that height my bike maxes out at around 40mph.  Very slow going when you can´t feel your hands.

On the other side of the pass Charlie and I stopped for lunch and dried off.  We then decided to get out of the city and find a hotel on the outskirts before nightfall to avoid the same hassle in the morning.  We looked at a map and decided to head south through the city and spit out on the highway at the other end.  As it turned out, there is only one highway in and out of La Paz, and it´s at the north end.  The two of us weaved traffic for two hours for twenty miles figuring that out.  By the time we found a hotel we were fifty miles south of the city and well into night time.  

Our hotel was a little swank and overpriced, but at that hour it was an oasis.  We went to bed by 9:00pm and were up and about by 6:00am on Sunday.  Sunday was election day in Bolivia, and it turned out to be very complicated.  Starting on Thursday they stopped selling alcohol across the country.  On Sunday, no one is allowed to drive.  As Charlie said, ´keep the population sober and immobilized for when the results come in´. Not really sure the rules, we decided to ride anyway.

The foreign plates turned to our advantage on Sunday as we were the only vehicles on the road besides ambulances.  We cruised across the Altoplano (high plains) at about 4,000 meters all day long making great time.  Gas was especially hard to find.  Some of the stations that were open wouldn´t sell to us and others simply were out of gas.  In the end we filled up at a family´s house that sold gas by the jerry can.  They were kind people and very excited about our trip.  It was surreal being the only souls on the road.  We crossed a lot of uninhabited terrain.  It was a little lonely, but a nice break from the usual semi duels.  

Around 2:00pm we pulled into the last police checkpoint before Potosi.  The police stopped us and said we couldn´t continue due to election day.  We had to wait until 7:00pm.  Charlie and I begged and pleaded and brought up the very valid point that all other police had waved us through without any questioning for the last 300 miles.  The cop called his commander.  Comandante Alvaraz came down and informed us that he could let us pass an hour earlier at 6:00pm, but that was all.  It was such a releif that they didn´t ask for a bribe.  

With no other option Charlie and I bought some snacks and sat down on the road to wait out the next few hours.  As luck usually has it on this trip, though, we met a new amigo just half an hour later.  Hans is a Swiss guy on a Honda Africa Twin and he was trying to leave the city with his Bolivian girlfriend Nora.  We talked to him for a while and he said he knew of a hot springs ten miles away that we could go to.  He slipped the commander $5 and was granted passage to our side.  

Together we took off.  I was low on gas, but anything was better than waiting.  We arrived at the hot springs and soaked for a couple hours with our new friends.  Hans had a lot of good route information and Nora owned a hotel in town.  Ideal people to run into.  At 6:00pm we dried off and headed back to the checkpoint.  Five miles away I ran out of gas.  Long story short, I siphoned Charlie´s gas twice to get back and it was as disgusting as it sounds.  I think my fuel petcock has the draw lines backwards.  When the engine started to sag I switched to ´reserve´and about ten seconds later it died completely.  Next ride I´ll try running on reserve and switching to ´on´when I get low.

We spent the night at Nora's lovely hotel last night and this afternoon Charlie and I are touring the mines here in Potosi.  That´s all for now.


  1. Congrats on riding the whole death road, we got there on our way back from Coroico (it was hailing on the way there) and rode about 5 km of it, but it just looked like every road in Guatemala so we skipped the rest.

    The gas situation sounds like fun! We only ran into one station that wouldn't sell to us, most of the others just wanted the "foreign" rate of 8.30BV per liter. We only paid it once, the rest of the time we negotiated. The checkpoint where you got stopped near Potosi was fun for us too, they said I had been going 100 in an 80 and the last checkpoint had radioed and told them about it. I knew they were lying - I had been going 140 all day! Anyway, I didn't speak any Spanish, and 15 minutes later they got tired of my stupid confused face and let us go. We met Hans and his girlfriend too, but in Uyuni. They took a parallel tour to us so we saw them quite a few times over the three days.

    Enjoy the mines - we didn't do that tour, rural Bolivia is dusty and depressing enough on the top side. In Valparaiso now, and it's as beautiful as it is expensive. Maybe see you guys in BA on our way back up, we're on the fast track for Bariloche and then on to Ushuia.

  2. It was great to meet you in Potosi! As allways, Bikers are a worldwiede family. I wish you all the best and hope to see you sometime somewhere.
    Hans and Norah, with teh Africa Twin