Now I’ve finally received my van insurance for the remaining countries of this trip I can head to Bolivia. I thought I was really close to the border but it is still a 2 hour drive. The passport line takes a while because there’s only one lady handling all people heading in both directions. Getting the van stamped out takes another 2 minutes. I arrive at the Bolivian side of the border at 12:15. I know they close for lunch at 13:00 so if I hurry I might make it through beforehand. Or I don’t… Today lunch starts at 12:15 and they refuse to look at my van until 14:00. The immigration part of the border is still open so I can start with that. The stampy guy is very grumpy. He asks me how many days I need for Bolivia. Because the car import permit days match the passport days and I plan to fly back to Europe for 3.5 weeks, I ask for the legal maximum of 90 days. The guy tells me that everyone wants more days from him but he only gives out 30. If I want more than 30, I’ll need to ask for an extension in La Paz. I try to convince him to give me the extra days now but no, no way. If you’re only going to give me 30 days then why ask at all? Fun fact 1: Bolivia is the first country on the whole trip that just doesn’t give you the maximum amount of days. Fun fact 2: if my van overstays its permit, Bolivia is one of the few countries where you don’t get a fine but they’ll actually impound your car and never give it back. Fun! Now I wait until 14:00 and surprisingly the Aduana opens exactly on time. I need to get a stamp from a police guy and contrary to the warnings I got he does not ask for a bribe. I guess I might have some luck today after all. My first camp night in Bolivia is in Copacabana. It’s not as warm as its Brazilian namesake, but it does have a very nice beach on lake Titicaca. I’m meeting Olli and his family here. A few months ago I was searching some information on one of the Panamerican Facebook groups when I thought I recognized a name. A few clicks later I found out it was indeed the Olli I knew from Zurich where I had met him once or twice through work. I send him a message and it turned out he was driving the Panamerican in the opposite direction. Over the last few months we kept counting down the kilometers between us . When we started, I was in El Salvador and they were in Chile and now, months later, we finally could meet up. They had found a nice campsite in Copacabana and it was only some 20 minutes drive from the border. But of course today being today and this week being this week it was not going to be that easy. The campsite is on the coast of the lake and the main road is higher up on the hills. Just before town my GPS send me down a steep turn. I could see the end of the road at the beach and the beginning of the road but not the bit in between. There were no signs saying it is a dead-end road and both my digital maps had it marked as a through road. But of course it wasn’t. Right in the middle, at the steepest section, someone decided to put some huge concrete blocks. The road was to steep to back up so I had to try to turn. There was very little space and a very awkwardly placed street light. With loads of little turns and keeping a good eye on the street light I managed to pull a low brick wall through my sliding door. Result: a big dent and some ugly scratches. So now the door doesn’t close properly because I got stuck in the mud a few days ago and it is dented. Just perfect… At least I got out of the stupid road and drove all the way through town to get to the campsite. That night I catch up with Olli and his family over dinner and drinks. A good end to a frustrating day.
The next morning we exchange all the good campsites, places to visit and spare change for the trip and say goodbye. They have already organised their shipping back from Colombia to Europe and don’t have a ton of time. After all my drama yesterday I can use a day of not going further than from my van to the toilet and back. The next day I attempt to do something again but when I walk towards town I see the car of the Dutch couple that I quickly met at my last campsite at the Peruvian side of lake Titicaca. But because they only arrived late and I left early I hadn’t really talked to them. Turns out they bought their car in Deurne, my home town. What a coincidence! We head to town together for lunch and exploring the local market. We decide to make pizzas in a pan for dinner tonight. They’re parked at the beach so we cook in front of their car and watch an awesome sunset over lake Titicaca.
I’m clearly lacking some motivation to do anything right now. I’ve been at lake Titicaca for a week and haven’t made it to any of the islands or anything else. Instead I finish my plan on how to make it to Santa Cruz in time for my flight to Europe and try to figure out how to extend my import permit. I force myself to walk into town, but the boats to the islands are already gone. One of the campsite dogs (or at least I think he might belong to the campsite) decides to follow me to town. But the road to town is filled with nasty aggressive street dogs. I try to make him go back to camp, but he refuses and keeps following me. Closer to town he obviously gets into a big fight with multiple street dogs at once but he seems to get out ok. He keeps following me all the way to town, but in the end I lose him. I expect to see him when I return to camp but he isn’t there. I feel a bit bad, but luckily he shows up later that night again. In other happy news: my hard drive with most of my photos decided to die. Let’s hope my online backup worked well.
When I finally manage to get my engine started the next morning I can head out of Copacabana and head towards La Paz. I’m meeting Lucas and Eveline there. Somehow Lucas left his credit card with Nicolas in Cusco and because I was heading south sooner I could bring Lucas his lost credit card. Interesting courier service. But getting to La Paz isn’t all easy. First I had to take a barge across a side arm of lake Titicaca. Let’s say the barges were interesting. Large wooden platforms that could either carry one truck and a car or three cars. When I drive up there are only trucks waiting so I get loaded behind a large fuel truck. The barges are very deep in the water and the floor consists of wooden beams with gaps in between that look big enough to fit my tires. Also I can see the water through these gaps and I can see that my van and the fuel truck are wobbling out of phase, even though we’re on the same barge. Fun, fun, fun! I make it across the water dry and start heading towards La Paz. A few hours later the police stops me to tell me that I and the car overtaking me were both doing 97 on an 80 road (good to know the roads are 80, I had not seen a single speed sign in this country). The policeman’s statement was interesting in multiple ways: 1, how I can I and the car overtaking me go at the same speed; 2, how can I be going 97 at 4000m on an uphill stretch, has this policman seen my van? I tell him I was definitely not doing 97. As a response I get a demo of his cool laser gun to show me he can measure speeds. I ask him how can both cars go at the same speed when the other was flying past me. He tells me the other car is getting a fine too. Maybe I should explain him how overtaking works. The whole thing gets even more interesting when he tells me he can’t actually give me a fine. His form doesn’t let him fill in information about foreigners. (I had read about this, but somehow forgot it). He tells me, he would have to get immigration involved so I could pay my fine (Bullshit Alert!!) and because that would be a big pain he offers me to just pay the fine directly to him without getting a receipt (Bribe Alert!!). Time to play the little game I call “I don’t understand you”. I ask him why I have to pay him my fine when he just told me he couldn’t give me a fine. Also I wasn’t driving to fast. Also I’ve got all day. Also I don’t understand you. Finally, after 20 minutes of the waiting game I win and he let’s me go this one time. Victory! When you think this means my fun with the police is done, you’ve forgotten that it’s drama month here at Flinking Around. So five minutes later at a checkpoint the police asks for my driver’s license. Normally I would give him my original, but because of this last police guy and the stories I’ve heard I decide to go for my laminated color copy. I had these made in Nicaragua in case of corrupt police, but never had to use them. Well today was a bad day to start. The guy sees it’s a copy right away and completely freaks out. He starts yelling how extremely illegal it is to use copies in Bolivia. So now it’s time for the power game and he goes for the full inspection of my van: What’s in that cupboard; What’s in that box in the cupboard; what’s in the bag in the box in the cupboard; what’s in the other cupboard. I stay friendly and let him have his fun. After 20 minutes I’m back on the road with all my money and all my stuff. When I arrive at the campsite in La Paz I see that not only Lucas and Eveline are there but also Erik, who I met at the cool eco hostel in Huaraz, Peru. Lucas and Eveline are in town, but invite me for dinner with their American friends. Lucas then sends me the following WhatsApp conversation he had with his American friends: “Is it OK if we bring our Dutch friend Maarten?”, “We met a Maarten driving a red VW van crossing into Guatemala, is that the same person?”. What a small, small world. Turns out they were having dinner with Forest and Jordan, I crossed the Guatemalan border with them and the Americans I met again in Arequipa and Cusco. So new record for longest time between meetings! Dinner is at a fancy Italian restaurant with great lasagna and even better wine. Can’t remember when I last had wine…
I was planning to go to the immigration office today to get my visa problem sorted. But Erik’s Bolivian friend Paolo who used to live in La Paz suggests to go visit some cool non-touristy stuff around town. I guess I fix my visa stuff on Monday… Plenty of time… We start by going to a local restaurant for lunch. It’s a three course lunch starting with a soup with plenty of meat and potatoes in it, after that we get half a chicken, fries, rice, lentils and a salad and we finish with a pineapple pudding. All for the good price of 2.5 euros. If the portions weren’t so big I would have gone for a second round. The afternoon we hike around the Valle de Animas (Valley of the Souls). Cool spiky rock formations on the outskirts of La Paz. They’re like a huge maze with insanely steep walls less than a meter apart. Around sunset we tour some of the suburbs and end back at the camp site to make a huge BBQ dinner. My addition to all the good food is real Dutch peanut sauce. Good thing I got supplies in Lima.
After a lazy Saturday at camp I decide to finally head into town on Sunday. From camp it’s a short microbus ride to one of the gondola terminals. La Paz is a weird city. Some 1.5 million people live in what I can best describe as a very dense city build inside and over the Grand Canyon. It’s a very steep canyon with houses hanging against the cliffs. Our camp is at 3200m, the city center at 3600m and the outskirts on the plateau next to the canyon on 4000m. That’s more than 800m height difference when you go from one side of town to the other. On top of this, the city is very densely build and it of course in South America. This all together makes for terrible traffic. The creative solution they have for this is a cable car public transport system. Not just for tourists but actually for the locals to get from A to B. There are currently four lines with a length of 14 km and 16 stations. Another seven lines are under construction that will bring the total to about 33km of cable cars. Right now you can only go up and down the steep cliffs, but in a few years you can actually go around the whole city in a circle. I really like this kind of public transit and it gives very interesting views over the city and into the local neighborhoods. La Paz does not have very many landmarks or interesting sights. Colonial buildings are almost non-existing. Also it’s Sunday so all the veggie markets and shops are closed. Luckily I find some kind of festival with loads of street music, games and people to watch. I end up walking all the way across town taking another cable car up to the outskirts of El Alto (a million people city in itself). I was planning to just watch the view from here but apparently there is one Sunday market and it’s huge. The market reaches way further than I can see and they sell everything, but in a good Bolivian fashion. At the car parts section there are multiple piles of random car parts. Just a big stack of screws, nuts, springs, cogs, etc. Good luck with finding what you need. I walk between racks of clothes, food, cars (whole ones!) and anything else you can imagine.
Monday! Time to get that easy task done of getting my visa extended. Is what I thought. Of course live isn’t that easy. I show up at the immigration office and the guy who only gives you a number to wait already wants to see my passport and how many days I have left. Well he says, you’ve only been in Bolivia for a week, you have three weeks left. We can’t extend your visa until you only have two weeks left. Come back next week. I try to convince him I need it now but nope, he won’t let me in. He does tell me I can get extensions in Cochabamba and Santa Cruz too. Maybe I’ll just try one of those. Waiting another week here means I would only have 5 days to get to Santa Cruz for my flight. Since I’m in the city already anyway I’ll go see what it looks like when things are open. I find the witches’ market which is the spot where witches go buy the stuff they need for ceremonies. No kidding. There’s loads of herbs and spices and funky containers, but apparently one of the most important ingredients are alpaca fetuses.Again, not kidding, there were actually loads of dried unborn alpaca babies for sale. No pictures allowed so you’ll just have to believe me. I also cable up to the end of the other gondola line for more views over the city from 4000m. It’s much clearer than yesterday and I have a nice view over the city with some snowy 6000m tall mountains in the back.
Research day. Looks like my visa issue is more complicated than I thought. Yes I could extend in Cochabamba or Santa Cruz but I read for people who tried that it was only possible with 10 or 5 days left on their current visa. That would be a problem because even with 10 days left I’d already be in the Netherlands. I do read that people have convinced the guys for earlier stamps by saying they were going to the mountains or some other remote area for a few eeks and would not be back in time for an extension. So my plan now is to try again here on Friday (technically two weeks would be Sunday). That way I would still have a week left to get to Santa Cruz.
Another day of walking through the city. This time together with Lucas and Eveline. There still isn’t that much to do, but filling up a day isn’t too hard. We find plenty of food and cool shops. We noticed that the people at the campsite just installed a gas oven in the kitchen yesterday so we decide for home made pizza dinner!
One more day to fill. Next to my campsite is another cool rock formation area. (Actually the whole city of La Paz is surrounded by these formations, but this one has staircases so you can go up and down between them.) The Valle de la Luna or Valley of the Moon is called like this because it looks the way people thought the surface of the moon would look like: dry, empty, with pointy rocks. The area is not very big and it is hard to be able to take pictures without ugly buildings in the back. But with a nice golden hour it’s pretty good and a relaxing spot to read a book.
New attempt at getting my visa extension. This time the lady at the numbers desk doesn’t ask any questions and just sends me to a counter. There the guy doesn’t ask anything either and just stamps two times 30 extra days in my passport. So easy! I guess I just had a grumpy guy on Monday and if I would have come back that afternoon or the next morning it would have been no problem. But hey, I’ve got my stamp. No I only need to fix the stamps for the van, which should be way easier (I hope). In La Paz the aduana is somewhere in El Alto. That would mean a one hour drive there (going from 3200 to 4000m on a narrow road) and the same back. If I spend the weekend driving I can be in Santa Cruz by Monday and fix the papers there. That should work. Tomorrow, after nine days in La Paz I can finally hit the road again.