The Bolivian South West, no country for young men [44/50]

The Bolivian South West is a expansive and rugged, resilient and optimistic synthesis of unique topologies, an amalgam of past eruptions and new dirt, of accumulated wisdom with new landscapes with few circumscribed references to the stuff of industrial Modernity. It is no country for young men (only Arthur Miller).

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Weird looking rock in the Bolivian South West

After returning from the Uyuni Salt Lake, I tied the moto to a post, bought two litres of water and jumped into a jeep headed into the Bolivian South West. A jeep with four wheels is much better in the South West than a bike with two as I had encountered many experienced bikers coming from the region on high-powered and expensive motos looking rather shattered and distraught, thus it was no place for a girly-man moto.

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Road to nowhere!

The first day we crossed the Uyuni Salt Flats, and although I was happy to be back there again, it was much more fun on the bike. There were five other people in the jeep, who didn’t natter that much which was refreshing because some nubile travelers tend to see the world through layers and layers of generalised banality, but then again they possibly have a very long, enriching journey ahead of them, and one can forgive someone for being an idiot when they are young but to be old and an idiot it is a tragedy (and never argue with a fool as other travelers may not know the difference!).

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Salt Hotel complete with salt floor

The first night we stayed in a salt hotel, with salt walls, salt beds, salt tables, and a salt floor. For dinner we had a simple meal of soup, meat and rice, except ironically there was no salt shaker on the table. The beds were surprisingly comfortable and warm, and I slept well and was up at the crack of dawn ready to tackle the bumpy road ahead.

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Mars!

Indeed, we traveled on some very rugged and corrugated roads on this day, through multi-coloured deserts, past smoking volcanoes, ochre lakes, bizarre shaped rocks on desolate moonscapes (and not to forget hundreds of pink flamingos). The landscape was remote, inhospitable, barren, yet incredibly beautiful, one of the newest parts of the Earth as opposed to Australia, which is one of the oldest (been there, done that).

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Pink Flamingos in pink lake (Lake Colorado, Bolivia South West)

On the second and last night , we left at 430 AM to see volcanic geysers at sunrise. The desert at this time of the morning was full of surprises with altering colours and long shadows bringing new depth to the visceral bareness. Steam violently shot out of the sand at many different places promising to upturn the jeep and strip us of another layer of banality.

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Geysers in the desert!

The final and most beautiful of many lakes we visited was called Laguna Verde, one of the most stunning lakes I have seen. Set beneath a Christmas pudding volcano, it ranks high as one of the nicest bits of real-estate I have seen on this journey (and it takes a lot to impress us Tasmanians).

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Langua Verde, Bolivian South West

On the third and final day, the jeep drove us back the few hundred kilometers to Uyini where I rested ready to cross into Chile.

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Lake Colorado, Bolivian South West

Potosi, city of tarnished silver [42/50]

It was an easy 200 Km ride from Sucre (the capital of Bolivia) to Potosi along a lively, brisk paved road. Although there are 42,000 Kms of roads in Bolivia, only 2000 kms of them are paved. Plus petrol stations are few and far between and when you finally find one, there is no guarantee that they will sell gasoline to a gringo anyhow. So I am injecting myself into the main arteries of Bolivia and will hop into a 4WD jeep to travel further afield.

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Potosi mine, Bolivia

I crossed a milestone in reaching Potosi in that I have now ridden 12000 Kms from the Caribbean Coast of Colombia to Potosi in Southern Bolivia (and geographically emaciated Chile is next). And although this has been challenging as a solo traveler, one is never alone in the grand landscapes of Bolivia when one has Kafka, Tolstoy, Garcia-Marquez and Kapachinski as accompanying grand narratives. I often see Andeans, sitting alone on the side of the road, miles from anywhere, or walking solo in the desert, a small dot on a vast landscape. I wonder what grand narratives are carrying them?

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Potosi, Bolivia with silver mine in the background

Potosi has a history too brutal and too core to human experience to do it justice here. The town sits at a respectable four thousand metres, overlooked by a five-hundred-year-old silver mine that is witness to some of the most extreme forms of exploration imaginable. In colonial times, Andean and African slaves worked the mine, bankrolling the Spanish empire, making Potosi one of the largest and most prosperous cities in the world for its time. There is no more silver left in the mine, only silver-zinc that is worked by miner-owned collectives, in conditions that are still far from perfect.

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Visiting the mine at Potosi, Bolivia

I visited the mine for an uncomfortable, voyeuristic two hours, stooping through four-foot-tall mine shafts, hitting my head every few minutes, walking through mud and water in the dim, lantern-lit light while breathing Beijing air. I encountered some miners and gave one a bag of coca leaves that apparently is medicinal for altitude sickness as the shaft penetrated the mountain at an absurdly high four thousand four hundred metres. The miners work with picks, shovels and dynamite and labouriously fill trolleys that hold one tonne of silver-zinc which in the present climate, only fetches about one hundred Bolivianos (about fifteen USD).

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Miners, Potosi, Bolivia

A unique aspect of the mine is that it is a refuge from Catholicism, meaning when one enters the tunnel they enter the world of a devil-thing and leave Catholicism at the pit entrance. Accordingly, there is a menacing looking devil statue in the mine with an extraordinarily large penis that has an insatiable appetite for coca leaves, ninety percent proof alcohol and cigarettes. The miners worship this instead.

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The devil likes coca, alcohol and cigarettes

I left the mine feeling shallow, wanting to explore it’s dark history some more and feeling that the next time I meet a complaining Australian, etc. with no real perspective on the world that I will be a little less generous in my opinion of them (down the hole buddy).

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Mine shaft, Potosi mine, Bolivia

Sucre, Capital de Bolivia [41/50]

The ride from La Paz to Sucre was too far to do in one day, so I rested in the desolate mining town of Oruru on the way. This ended up being a wise decision as it took forever to get out of car-chocked La Paz. La Paz is located in a broad, deep valley and the way into the valley is the same way out of the valley, which I couldn’t figure out because it defied my logic based on machine-learned experience from other cities in less challenging locations.

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The road to Sucre from Oruro

In Oruro, I met a young French/Chinese cyclist entering the ramshackle, adobe fringes of the beat-up town and stopped for a chat. He had a wild, rugged look in his eye and was deeply tanned, disheveled and driven by an infectious curiosity. We spent the evening talking about riding, about solitude and traveling the more interesting back roads of Bolivia. I enjoy meeting travelers like him that take things one step further and ride thousands of kilometers, often through extreme and exceptional conditions, to explore the world and its people at a stately pace (far beyond the two-minute-noodle dictates of the instrumentalist, poverty jet set). In the morning, he rode off into the desert along a dusty, gravel road towards the salt lakes and I felt a little mediocre as my transportation has something that resembles a motor.

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Sucre, Bolivia

Sucre is the Capital of Bolivia (and I know someone told you that La Paz is the capital which isn’t true so stop stop saying it right now). Sucre is a colonial city, set out on an orderly grid with a lively Plaza del Ames and numerous luminescent white churches and civic buildings protected by a UNESCO World Heritage overlay (which is good because South America has the world’s ugliest Modernity hotly contested by Canberra).

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Sucre, Plaza del Ames

It has an excellent arts scene, numerous cafés and bars and the second oldest university in the Americas. It is a small city on a human scale, so it is possible to walk most places (and stop for cake and coffee on the way).

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Universidad de San Francisco Xavier, 1621

Bolivia is one of the world’s great indigenous countries, and the majority of the population of ten million people originate from indigenous groups such as Amerindians and Mestizos. However, it is also one of the poorest and least developed countries in South America, making it inexpensive but challenging to travel within. For instance, petrol is subsidised for locals at less than half the international market price, but travelers must pay the international price. This isn’t an issue with a 125cc moto but there is a problem when eighty percent of petrol stations won’t sell petrol to foreigners (as I think that they don’t want to do the paperwork). I went to six petrol stations on the road from Oruro to Sucre, and none of them would sell gasoline to a gringo. At the last one, I finally lost my temper and said something disparaging about the Bolivian revolution of 1952 and used a hand gesture common in the United States in the 1970s to add emphasis. This Mad Max petrol system doesn’t fill me with confidence to travel further afield in Bolivia as it is prone to rorting and extortion (and running out of petrol in the desert doesn’t appeal). I wonder what Che would have done on that fuel guzzling, shit-box bike of his?

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Poster, Sucre, Bolivia

The hostel where I stayed in Sucre had a deal with Spanish lessons so I spent my week brushing-up on Spanish as I still have about three thousand kilometers, dozens of hotel rooms and two countries to ride through (hopefully, with petrol). Sucre has some excellent Spanish schools and just like Cuenca in Ecuador, has a reputation as one of the best places to learn Spanish in South America. Next I will ride the moto across the Uyuni salt flats in Southern Bolivia and then cross into the Atacama desert in Chile, one of the driest and most inhospitable places on the planet (hopefully with water).

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Casa de la libertad, Sucre, Bolivia

La Paz, not a city of angels [40/50]

The ride from Copacabana to La Paz was a short, pleasant one, passing crystalline lakes and broad vistas of snow-capped Andean mountains (and not to forget the herds of wild, fluffy Llamas). In the late morning, making good progress, I rode into a small, relaxed lakeside town, but unfortunately, the road had vanished. I have had innumerable problems with disappearing roads before, but usually, it has been high in the mountains or deep in the jungle, not on a major road to the largest city in Bolivia. I looked around for the wayward road and was about to naively ask a local, but then realised there was no road, only a bunch of rickety wooden barges to take vehicles the kilometre or two to the other side of the lake. I put the moto on the wooden barge, paid the wooden barge-man viente Bolivianos, then continued onto La Paz.

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Don't pay the ferry man to he gets you to the other side

La Paz is a nasty, hard, Modernist city full of witches and slippery, Dickensian vermin who steal things. But aside from this, the actual location of this vice is pretty damn special, as the city is set within a deep high-altitude valley overlooked by an enormous wise, snow-peaked mountain.

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La Paz, Bolivia

The issue is that the city and the location are at odds with one another; there is just not enough room in the Valley for yet another, old-fashioned 20th Century, New World Modernist apocalypse. A city of two million feels like a city of ten million because there are too many polluting cars and buses crammed into a trashed grid system that doesn’t work because the streets are too narrow and in desperation, they have been made into an incomprehensible, Kafkaesque one-way system, thus rendering the city one dated Fritz Lang industrial nightmare. Small measures such as restricting car access to the valley, making pedestrian-only streets and getting otherwise handsome people on bicycles would make La Paz sparkle (and it is no wonder the Uros people reject this shit).

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La Paz, Viva La Revolucion .

I only spent three days in La Paz, walking the streets, searching for something that resembled coffee, visiting the markets, San Pedro Prison (the outside), and at least one notorious party hostel (the inside), whilst trying to get a feel for the city and how its inhabitants engage with the world (and unfortunately I understand La Paz in this instance, through its aggressive, cancerous streets).

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Market, La Paz

Travel is necessarily superficial, and my understandings of La Paz is likewise superficial but no one could ever accuse one of being superficial for visiting it (and perhaps it is the cracks within the Modern city that make them attractive and it’s the cracked ones that will possibly try something different)

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Many places pose as cafés in South America but they only have nasty, instant, Modernist coffee (from an old-fashioned future )

Lake Titicaca [39/50]

The last stop of my two-month Peruvian sojourn was Lake Titicaca, a colossal and very deep lake high-up on a never-ending Andean plateau (the Altiplano). The lake is split between Peru and Bolivia and in case you were wondering, it is where the Sun was born. Lake Titicaca is the spiritual home and birthplace of many Andean cultures (including the Incas), some who still live around or even on the lake perpetuating the traditional lifestyles of their ancestors. And once you see the lake you can understand why (and Modernity is over-rated, especially in the other New World one-trick ponies of Australia and New Zealand, etc. that don’t know anything else).

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Copacabana, Lake Titicaca, Bolivia

Puno is a relatively large but relaxed city on the Peruvian lake shore. From Puno, I visited the pre-Incan Uros people who live on floating islands made of reeds a couple of kilometers offshore. They have lived this way for a thousand years originally as a defence mechanism against hostile Incas and others, but now perhaps because it is a kind of cool lifestyle. But they don’t reject Modernity entirely as I saw solar panels, TVs and radios and boats with outboard motors.

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The floating islands of the Uros people, Lake Titicaca

There are about two thousand Uros people who live on forty-two islands, each sitting on a living, floating reed island made of metres-thick roots with freshly laid reeds on top (and the islands are tied to the floor of the lake so that they don’t float away). And apparently when the lake gets choppy, the islands bob up and down just like a boat. The reeds on the top of the isles get replaced regularly, but the underlying roots rot away so the whole island needs to be rebuilt every thirty years.

This reminded me of the Japanese movie by Hiroshi Teshigahata, Woman of the Dunes (1964). A salary man tired of the monotony of Japanese industrialisation escapes to the beach and while running along it, falls into a big hole. At the bottom of the hole lives a lady who puts him to work filling a sand bucket that must be lifted out of the hole regularly by the local villagers or the hole will cave in on itself. Perhaps the Uros people are more Modern than they think.

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Uros people, Lake Titicaca, Peru

From Puno, I crossed the hellish and inefficient border of Peru into Bolivia to the other side of Lake Titicaca. I stayed in a friendly but claustrophobic, family-run hotel in Copacabana, a raffish tourist town on the lake edge. From here I visited Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun), a quiet island about two hours by boat from Copacabana. The island was pretty damn special and reminded me a lot of the peninsulas in my very own Southern Tasmania. And having a moto I was able to visit easily many of the local villages on the mainland close to Copacabana although to call them quite is an understatement. Even the Llamas looked like they were in a coma.

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Isla Del Sol, Bolivia

I am now in La Paz, which I was trying to avoid as it is too damn large, but even on a moto you have to follow the pre-defined roads (and all roads lead to La Paz).

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Matt, Copacabana, Bolivia (imagining he is in Rio)

Colca Canyon with rum…[38/50]

From the shabby mining town of Mazuko in the Peruvian Amazon, it was a tough two-day ride to bucolic Colca Canyon near Arequipa in Peru’s south. It rained heavily on the first day, but it didn’t seem to matter that much as it was so damn hot. But as I climbed out of the Amazon basin, wet and tired, up a never-ending and steep river valley the temperature dropped dramatically and enveloped in a thick, damp mist, it started to lightly snow. I emerged on a vast, desolate mountain plateau (Altiplano), absolutely freezing, but at least, it had stopped raining! I managed to ride over the plateau for a few torturous hours before the temperature got the better of me and I spent the evening in a strange plateau town called Azangaro in a warm hotel with cable TV and hot water.

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View from Chivay

The next day it was bright and sunny but still very cold. The road was superb (a branch of the Interoceanic), so I made good progress and arrived in Chivay in the Colca Canyon, mid-afternoon. On the way to Chivay I traversed yet another mountain pass of 4800 meters (I used to think this was high), and as I was doing so, I am sure I heard the forever-loyal moto scream “get off me you bastard.” On the top of the pass there was a viewing platform where I saw one of the most dramatic sights of this trip so far (I told you, South America keeps giving and giving). Across the vast plateau, there was a row of extremely high volcanoes, some over 6000 meters high and just to top things off, one of them was smoking! This alone seemed to make the last two days of hell-riding worth it. And I’m sure there is a lot more to come (hell-riding that is).

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Smoking volcano!

Chivay is a small, friendly, and typically South American town in the Colca Canyon, a deep Canyon and fertile valley that has been home to Andean people and their agricultural practices for many centuries. I found a basic hotel just off the Plaza de Armes and had dinner with a lovely Italian chap that narrated his hilarious story of driving an old Italian ambulance from Milan to Mongolia. Then I went to bed early so as to discover the Colca Canyon and Valley early in the morning (and the nightlife in Chivay didn’t seem that hot).

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Colca Canyon, not deep enough!

In the morning I rode about 40 kms up the canyon to a condor viewing platform that I was assured was the best place to see the depth of the canyon and perhaps even some condors. But the condors go home about 930AM, about the same time that I got there, so I had to settle for the view of the deep canyon. And yes the canyon is deep, but to say that it is the world’s deepest or second deepest as does much tourist-orientated propaganda, is a means to appeal to the inner inner-hillbilly in us all, the hillbilly that needs simplistic hierarchies to measure and bring meaning to a world that is largely un-measurable (or as us Australians say, ‘best little town in the world mate’)

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Colca Canyon agricultural terracing

That said, the number one hierarchical sight in the valley is the agricultural terracing that utilises ever patch of fertile land, right up onto the canyon ledge. This has been a practice of the peoples in the traditional, Andean towns in the valley for many centuries. The view of the terraces from the edge of the canyon is beautiful. I spent three nights in Chivay exploring the valley and preparing myself to ride back over the 4800-metre pass (past the smoking volcano) and along the frigid plateau to Puno. The Italian guy (with the ambulance) introduced me to cheap Peruvian rum, which seems to do the trick.

The Choquequirao trek: alternative to Machu Picchu [36/50]

The 4-5 day Choquequirao trek begins about 200 Kms north of Cusco near Abancay. Far from a little frolic in the Andean mountains, the trek traverses a broad and deep valley with no less that two back-breaking climbs of about 1500 meters each (one on the way to Choquequirao and one coming back). But the long and hard slog is worth it as the spectacular Inca ruins of Choquequirao are on par with Machu Picchu and even better still, they are almost entirely deserted of tourists (as just a tiny bit of effort usually rules out the worst tourists).

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Resting at Choquequirao

The trick with this trek is travel as lightly as possible, say about 5 Kgs (and the trek is easy to do without guides with smelly ponies). Fresh drinking water is available on the way, either in springs or to buy, and food is also available in the camping spots (but take snacks as well just in case the donkey with the food is late). And it can take up to 6 hours to climb the relentless, unforgiving, hot and dusty switchbacks up and back from Choquequirao so again bring nothing except a good pair of shoes and a travel buddy who is preferably more healthy than you.

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Switchback trek up the mountain

My travel buddy was a bright and loquacious poet I met in Pisac in the Sacred Valley near Cusco (from a nervous corner of that other America). We talked about Tolstoy and Obama and Tasmanian convicts and 1491 and Incas with long legs while stepping in pony shit and getting eaten by flies (the flies are exceptionally rapacious on this trek so bring some napalm).

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River valley view from Choquequirao

Choquequirao is in the saddle of a ridiculously high hill at the junction of two ridiculously deep river canyons (the ones you have to walk through). And just to embellish this intrepid theme some more, Choquequirao is surrounded by thick jungle that perhaps hides many more secrets of the Incas (and perhaps some Incas themselves ready to fight the Modern savages from Jeddah or Frankfurt).

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Choquequirao

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Choquequirao