A very annoying Bolivian day

Trip Start Oct 16, 2012
Trip End Apr 20, 2013

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Flag of Bolivia  , La Paz,
Friday, March 1, 2013

We awoke a couple of times in the night and were awarded with amazing views of the mountains lit up by a night full of bright stars. It was beautiful and other than that we both had a great sleep in the camp behind the vegetable patch. As we prepared to set off in the morning we saw the farmers beginning to start their day, and as each of them passed us they said loud, welcoming greetings and wore big smiles. Everyone was up and about in the morning, including the chickens and cats who all came over to see if we had anything interesting going on. The cows were let out to graze only about 20 meters away and as we sat eating our breakfast on the grass, we felt like we had woken up in the middle of a farm. I was taken back to numerous mornings waking up at Paulette's house in Timaru, watching the chickens scratching about whilst I drank a cup of coffee.

We got on the bikes ready for a short day to El Alto. We had debated if we should go into La Paz or not, which is the departmental capital of Bolivia. The actual capital is Sucre, but all the government buildings are in La Paz, and consequently that is the bigger city, with more going on in terms of tourist attractions. We had heard mixed reviews about La Paz, and it was generally referred to as “just another big city”. However the cyclists that we met in Copacabana said that it was worthwhile and that they stayed just outside in a place called El Alto, and then caught a bus into the city centre. Therefore you can have a walk around the city for the afternoon and evening, without having to descend 500m into the city, cycle through heavy traffic and then back track up the 500m to the highway again. It seemed like the perfect solution for us, and as we had cycled for a good length yesterday, we thought we should be in El Alto by midday.

Initially we continued to have amazing mountain views as we cycled in the morning, with snow capped mountains jutting out in every direction that we looked. After a couple of hours we entered an industrial area, with buildings and trucks on both sides of the road. This continued all the way to El Alto, and was clearly the industrial outskirts of La Paz. The road slowly climbed about 400m but it went easily and quickly as we observed the goings on of the houses and organisations that we passed.

When we arrived into El Alto we tried unsuccessfully to find a place to stay for the night. We cycled around and around the main centre area, which felt like a city in its own right. Kory and I take it in turns each day to be the person who asks at the hotels about their rooms, facilities and prices. The other person stays outside with the bikes until it is decided. Today was Kory's turn and for that I was extremely grateful. The lobby of each of the hotels was on the third floor, which meant that he had to walk up passed the first floor (which each time seemed to be the public toilets), the second floor (which was invariably a restaurant) and one final floor to speak to anyone. Later we counted how many hotels he went into and we think it was 10. After walking up three flights of stairs he often came across no-one there and had to retreat without finding anything out. Other times he was told to come back later, or that they were full (which seemed highly unlikely). Another time he thought everything was fine, until he mentioned that we are cyclists and he was then frog marched out of the building and had the door slammed shut behind him. Finally he found a place, that was filthy and small and not really a good deal, but he was tired and understandably didn't want to ask any more times. They agreed on the price and Kory came down the three flights of stairs to bring the bikes up. We un-clipped the bags from the bikes and made several journeys to carry the 10 bags and 2 bikes up the three flights of steep stairs. Once we got to the top the hotel guy said that the price had doubled and demanded we pay him there and then. I guess he presumed we looked so tired from carrying everything up the stairs that we would pay anything. He was wrong, we turned on our heels and carried everything back down the stairs again. It was the principle of the matter and I didn't want to leave our things with someone who so clearly couldn't be trusted.

After wasting two hours we decided that La Paz wasn't worth all the hassle and we wouldn't have enough time to enjoy it now anyway. We decided to continue along the highway and to see how far we could get for the day. As if to redeem their city a little bit, two separate people came up to us to ask if we needed directions out of the city.  They were both friendly and helpful and gave slow, clear directions. One lady called Maria seemed really excited to see us and asked us about our trip and where we were from. I made myself focus on these pleasant interactions rather than dwell on the annoyances of being messed around with looking for a room.

Things were only going to get worse though and I thought Kory's head might explode he was getting so peeved with the country. We needed to get fuel before heading off for another night of camping. We don't use that much each night but we only have a small cylinder and usually that is sufficient for numerous meals. However, we have heard that it is difficult to buy fuel as a foreigner in Bolivia, so we thought we should try to get a top up as and when we see fuel stations. Now if we had cycled up to the pump and received an explanation of why they won't sell fuel to foreigners, along with an apologetic look or something similar, we probably would have tried to understand. However, each time we cycled up to the pump the attendant purposely turned and walked away from us, or looked at us like they had trodden in something. It was so infuriating. Kory found an understanding customer who said he would fill up our cylinder for us and then Kory could just pay him instead. We thought we were in luck, but the attendant just pointed at the cameras and shook her head. We still haven't gotten to the bottom of what is
going on here, it is something to do with Bolivian's getting subsidized fuel from oil-rich Venezuela. Foreigners can buy fuel but the petrol station needs to charge them three times as much or something like that and then fill in paperwork to show where the fuel went including license plates etc. However, most petrol stations don't have the paperwork and generally can't be bothered with the hassle. There seems to be a bit of a stand-off at the moment with Bolivia and the USA, as they are the only ones who have to pay a huge amount for a visa ($160 I think), they also have to jump through more hoops to get into the country and Bolivia have also banned lots of American companies including MacDonalds and all Coca Cola products. Anyway, none of this helped us with trying to get a little bit of petrol to use for our camp stove. In the end, after asking at about 7 petrol stations we gave up, as they wouldn't even look at us. Kory noticed a black board by the side of the road that said amongst other things “gasolina”. I'm not sure how legal it is, but the guy sold petrol by the 500mls at the back of his shop. We were unsure about the quality of the fuel but stocked up our fuel bottle and got an extra litre in a drink bottle for emergencies.

At the same time we had been looking for water, in case we end of camping for the night. Usually they have water available at petrol stations, either next to the air or else in the bathroom sinks.  These petrol stations had neither. They rarely even had bathrooms let alone water attached to their sinks. We became more and more annoyed as we cycled around trying to get petrol and water and re-joining the highway with neither.

Eventually we saw that a house had an outdoor tap, and pulled over to ask them if we could fill our water bladders with it. They were more than happy to oblige and showed us that their house was actually a shop, with a small amount of drinks and chocolates and some fresh vegetables from the village. We happily took some vegetables off their hands, knowing that we would use them over the next couple of days, even if we don't camp tonight. This small interaction did a lot to remind me that Bolivians are not all bad and to not write off their whole country yet.

As we continued to cycle along the main highway, the road was under construction and numerous times was diverted on to a gravel track, whilst the main road was being upgraded. Thankfully the road wasn't too busy and the cars gave us plenty of room as they passed us. Towards the end of the day we saw the new road was built and ready for use, but hadn't been joined up to the highway yet. We pushed our bikes over to the new road and sailed across the smooth tarmac. It was great, we had the whole road to ourselves.

We started to looked for a place to camp but couldn't find anywhere that was hidden from the road and from the locals. Although we spent about half an hour off our bikes looking for anywhere half decent we had to give up and continue along the new road. As we joined the road again we saw a village in the distance, which wasn't on our map. We thought we would cycle to it and ask someone if we could sleep in their garden like we did the night before. As we arrived though we saw that there were two big hotel complexes in the tiny village, with about 10 houses. Both of the complexes had numerous floors of rooms, and restaurants and shops at the bottom. How bizarre that bigger towns that we have cycled through have nothing and this tiny place has more than we ever expected.

The young guy showed me to our room, on the fourth floor but said that we could lock our bikes up at the back of the restaurant and they would be safe there. He then made a big show about making sure that we used the family shower as it was hotter and nicer. His father tried to convince him to charge us extra because we are foreigners but he wouldn't hear it and stuck to the agreed price. He did a lot to make me warm towards this country again, after a difficult day with accommodation, fuel and water problems. After a delicious dinner in their restaurant, followed by some yummy home-made orange cake, I was willing to start my opinions afresh for Bolivia. Somehow even with all of the delays we still cycled 120km, which leaves us 160km away from the next city of Oruro. We had planned to stay in El Alto and then take two days to get there, but now we have messed up the itinerary and will try to do a really long day tomorrow to make it there.
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Karen on

Wow what a tough frustrating day!!!

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