A Bolivian Motorcycle Adventure
14 day moto tour of Central Highlands & Southern Altiplano
By Mike Moora
WHEN & WHERE
April is the climate transition period for Bolivia’s high country, when the wet summer has ended, and the dry sunny fall and winter take over. It is an ideal time to start a motorcycle tour, as the lower elevations are green and lush, and the higher passes have dried out and the biker’s arch-enemy - mud - has all but disappeared.
Riding is certainly possible year-round in most of Bolivia, but the fall and winter seasons are optimum. To take advantage of this fact, I focused on the transitional area above the steamy jungle to the high altitude planes (Altiplano) of Bolivia. The mild sunny dry weather, the backdrop of the Andes, and the superb combination of historical colonial cities and indigenous culture are strong attractions to travelers world-wide.
THE TOUR OPERATOR
I locked-on to Maarten Munnik’s Bolivia Motorcycle Adventures (BMA) after a quick web search. My riding buddy Mike and I were impressed by the competitive pricing and schedule flexibility offered by Maarten, and he’s certainly qualified, having logged many thousands of miles exploring four continents. Check out his fascinating book, “100,000 Miles of Solitude” and the gallery of images from Maarten’s World website.
CAN YOU CUSTOMIZE A TOUR?
We weren’t ready for the full-blown 27 day ‘Discover Bolivia’ tour, and requested a shortened version of approximately 14 days duration. Maarten demonstrated his creative side, and quickly counter-offered a custom 2 week adventure through the Central Highlands, and on to the Southern Altiplano; just what we were looking for. A detailed itinerary arrived by email the following day, and we were in. I could hardly contain the excitement of breaking a 5 month winter layoff from my own motorcycles, and getting to the wild-west atmosphere of Bolivia.
Next up: details including motorbike selection, gear requirements, and what particulars to bring on this adventure. Everything was outlined with clarity by BMA. Maarten’s on-line gear list, instructions, and legal guidance laid it all out. We ended up bringing our personal riding gear, cameras, recreational clothing in layers to suit the range of elevations from sub-tropical to high altitude passes, and not much more. BMA’s promotional material stresses a ‘just show up and ride’ philosophy, which suited our objectives. We booked flights to Santa Cruz and prepared for the exhilaration.
BMA arranged our pick-up from Viru Viru International Airport; a much appreciated feature after the butt-numbing hours of flying. The taxi ride to the company’s home base in Samaipata previewed the lush valleys we would experience with the climb up the Central Cordillera range into the highlands.
Accommodations for the first and last night of BMA tours are provided by the marvelous hilltop El Pueblito, overlooking the Samaipata valley. This neat little village of tastefully decorated cabins, a church, restaurant and pool is the ideal spot to unwind and find your way into the culture of Bolivian village life.
Day 1 of our tour began with a thorough safety orientation by Maarten, followed by an introduction to our moto-steeds. I drew a Suzuki DR650SE, a stalwart of dual-sport and adventure riding. The other Mike had the Kawasaki KLR650 and Maarten the Honda XR650R. Each with various levels of power and handling, and all without luggage or other ‘adventurizing’, these machines proved ideal for the tour’s array of road surfaces. We finished or first day with a quick ride up to El Fuerte, a historical centerpiece of Inca culture which claims the title of largest stone structure in the Americas. This mystical UNESCO World Heritage site was occupied as early as 2000 BC. The main stone feature is a complex combination of carved idols, seats, tanks, troughs and niches that have withstood the aging process remarkably well.
After returning to the oasis of El Pueblito, dinner in downtown Samaipata, we settled in and contemplated the journey ahead.
Rather than provide the details of this glorious tour in travelogue style, and potentially turn-off readers with limited time, I refer you again to BMA’s website (Highlander I tour), where you’ll find a concise description of the route and highlights. Those with additional curiosity can uncover numerous resources describing the various cultural and historical treasures of this fascinating area; try a few web searches on key words such as Inca Empire, Pachamama, Quechua, Ernesto Che Guevara, Sucre, Cerro Rico Mine, and Salar de Uyani.
I doubt you’ll be able to resist the fascinating history and romantic draw of the Bolivian highlands.In addition, consider this: the roadways through the highlands give new meaning to ‘twisty’. This is moto-mecca; at least 60% dirt, and almost a continuous series of switchbacks, climbs, and descents through stunning mountain valleys, agricultural fields and tiny villages.
Gasoline supply is a challenge in back-country Bolivia, as it is throughout South America. We filled up whenever possible, but our ace-in-the-hole was BMA’s support truck, which shadowed us like a mindful mother, carrying a lifeline in jerry cans.
With a steady diet of backcountry dirt riding, motorcycle components invariably vibrate lose or worse, disappear. Maarten and Erwin kept a close eye on the hardware to minimize this process. At speed on the roadway, during roadside breaks, and before departing each morning our bikes were closely scrutinized and reassuringly kept in top condition.
While I prepared myself diligently over the month or so before leaving for Bolivia, including paging through travel guides, delving into historical background and practicing Spanish language CDs, there were nonetheless a few surprises encountered.
The following are worthy of note:
· Good food is easy to find in and around the larger cities. On the road, and especially in the highlands, finding a restaurant can be challenging. Carrying energy bars and snack foods is encouraged, in the event you find yourself in this predicament.
· Bolivian beer is excellent. I cannot make the same claim for the national liquor, Singani. Thankfully there are juices and sodas to dilute this potent white grape brandy.
· Cellular service is widespread, often found in smaller villages. Many of the larger cities now have 3G service. The majority of the hotels in the larger cities had Wi-Fi service too.
There may be other moto-touring operations in Bolivia, but after our experience I can’t imagine they compare with the BMA’s operation, in terms of flexibility, customer service, experience and support.