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Wild La Paz

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Wild La Paz

Copacabana, 18-Aug-2010

I arrived by sundown to Cochabamba – Kilometer 27,232; Cochabamba, 24-Jul-10 @ 19:00.  It was a beautiful winding road, climbing from the tropical forest through the Andes.  It wasn’t an easy ride; I was hit by heavy fog and some rain at one point but what really made it worse were the buses and trucks.  Uphill, downhill, regular or blind curves, through construction or gravel roads, in fog or blindful dust, these guys will try to pass a slower car or truck.  Of course, it doesn’t matter if there’s incoming traffic.  Worse, I am on a bike, I am small, right?  NOT!  They hunk and flash at me to move.  Yeah buddy, where?  Well as I found out (the hard way), I had to move out of the way into the dirt shoulder.  After a few of these incidents, I decided to play “chicken” with them… hey, kinda made the ride more exciting ;).  Surprisingly, it works!  But still, a few times I was forced to blink first.  The scariest moment was when I saw an incoming moto with 2 men on it, zigzagging all over the road as if it was dancing.  I stopped at my right-hand side and as this moto got closer, it nearly hit me when it passed me by: the passenger was holding a beer bottle and the driver chewing a huge coca ball!  Energy and drink, it will be a long night… or probably not.

Cochabamba is famous for its food diversity and for its immense market where you can find absolutely anything: the many herbs, medicinal or hallucinogenic, wild animals, llama fetuses,…  It also has a nice avenue, the Prado, where the many restaurants, bars and karaoke clubs are.  However, and to the contrary to other Bolivian cities, Cochabamba is the only one where I felt somewhat insecure walking some of its streets; there are a few dangerous neighborhoods, especially late afternoon.  A side note here: I was mistakenly expecting Bolivia to be a dangerous country but quite to the contrary, after spending a couple of month here, Bolivia’s cities are safer than the ones in Ecuador, Peru or even some Argentinean cities.   Of course, staying in the small towns and villages is the real treasure.

Two full days were more than enough for Cochabamba and now I was finally heading for La Paz.  I was really eager to get there.  I got lucky too, I managed to convince one of the most popular hostels in La Paz, the Wild Rover, to allow me to park my bike in its patio.   All I needed was to surpass another “horror” story told to me by fellow riders:  “You need to tackle the traffic of La Paz and navigate through its steep hills, unsigned roads and tons of pedestrian”.  What I was dreading turned out to be just “another city”.  The autopista, if you can call it that way, cut through the heart of the city and simply asking at each red light or stop sign the direction to my hostel, I found myself in front of the Wild Rover in less than 15 minutes (well, I cheated a little with a couple of illegal left turns – which the cops didn’t seem to mind ;).  Hey, I am getting good at this 🙂 Kilometer 27,631; La Paz, 27-Jul-10 @ 16:45.

Leslie also booked me the best room at the Rover, room “P”; the first few days I was sharing the room with Ben & Kate, a Kiwi backpacker couple, and we called the room the “Penthouse”.  High up on the roof, no bunk beds, windows on both sides with amazing views to the Illimani mountain to the south-east and El-Alto to the west.  As for the hostel itself, well the owner is a marketing genius.  He actually built this 120+ bed hostel around an Irish bar, serving mainly the Anglo-Saxon crowd (Irish, Brits, Kiwis and Oz).  I will probably be (and rightfully) accused of generalizing but at least at this hostel, this bunch were as interested in drinking and partying as everything else.  So, give them a wrist band which acts as an open tab, give them a spotless, very comfortable and cheaply priced hostel, serve hearty Irish food (noted to be as good as back home) and “they” will come… and spend.  While you can VERY easily live with less than U$D12/day in Bolivia while not skimping on ANYTHING, these guys are now spending U$D40+ in the hotel alone!  I’ll let you do the math guys.

La Paz is an interesting and somewhat intriguing city.  While it doesn’t stack up against the beauty of colonial Quito, the fabulous museums of Lima or the diversity and lively BA, it has its own charm and is distinctively different than any other city I have visited around the world:  Walking in a state capital where supermarkets are practically non-existent since you can find absolutely everything in the many markets and vendors which flood the city streets.  Traditionally dressed aboriginals (Cholitas, Jal’a,…) mix with the suit & tie business people in its bustling streets.  Black market stalls are at every corner (and are “permitted”), selling imitation & fake electronics, imitation branded cloth, DVDs, CDs…  You can hear firecracker blasts throughout the day, witness daily marches or demonstration in front of the presidential palace (each day for a different reason by a different group) and being offered cocaine by nearly every taxi driver.  Balaclava gladded shoeshine boys fill the streets, there’s always a food vendor a few meter away for a quick snack and a fresh juice cart to help you get your daily vitamins intake…  La Paz is home to the weirdest prison ever, the San Pedro prison, and only here you can attend a “Cholita wrestling”, the local version of WWE with the traditional dressed Bolivian women battling the macho bad boys.

I took advantage of this market-city to do a makeover.  I bought or replaced some of my cloth (some were stolen/forgotten other were badly used by now), bought some tools, managed to find cheaply priced tires (good Pirelli’s MT60 ready for the off-roads) and repaired my motorcycle riding gears: my boots (the soles had holes in them!) and gloves (fingertips had holes).  I spent in total 18 days in and around La Paz, including the few excursions I did: I rode my bike down the famous WMDR (World Most Dangerous Route or “The Death Road”) – which really wasn’t at all that bad – then stayed a few days near Coroico at la Sanda Verde, an animal refuge, in the warm Yungas.  Kilometer 27,731; Sanda Verde, 30-Jul-10 @ 14:45. I then did a day trip to visit Tiahwanaco ruins (or what’s left of them) and climbed Huayna Potosi, a 6,088m high snow covered peak in the Cordillera Real.  As for La Paz itself, well the party was in full swing and having a couple of very cool and funny Irish lads as roommates (Dave and Gary), we rarely made it back home prior to 9:00… just in time to watch the live English Premiership football game, right Dave?! :).  And during my last week stay at the Rover, I also hooked up with Outi and her friends, a group of Finish girls for a few day of visits and lots of party: I never hanged-out with Finish people before but if Outi is any example, be ready for lots of cold/satirical yet funny conversations… as well as Vodka shots.

But all good things have to end not to mention I really needed to get away from the Wilde Rover.  Moderation is not a term that fits this hostel.  I actually had to delay my exit a couple of days since the night before parties were still going strong by the time I needed to do the check out ;).  Lucky, I always had my room to stay in thanks to Leslie.  Sunday at 10:00, I finally got myself together and hit the road, half asleep, to Copacabana.   The road winding through the hilly shore of Lago Titicaca was not only beautiful it also had its fun moments:  one village had a colorful and festive march & dance (don’t ask me the occasion) and I crossed the Tiquina straight on a wooden barge.  Kilometer 28,011; Copacabana, 15-Aug @ 14:10. The reason I left on Sunday to Copacabana is to participate in the “Bendicion de Movilidades”.  Trucks, cars, 4x4s,… are decorated and adorned – like X-mass trees – and driven up to the main plaza in front of the church where the father will bless the vehicles.. for a small donation.  Then for the next few minutes, the celebration begins and the owners light up firecrackers and spray the car with confetti.  We are then rapidly ushered away so the next batch of “movilidades” can enter the plaza to be blessed.  Even people from Peru will do the trip for this event.  So too did a Canadian-Lebanese with his Ecuadorian motorcycle; Llama needed to get blessed for the trip back home.

The next morning I took the boat to visit Isla del Sol, the Inca’s sacred island.  It is there where Viracocha, the god of the universe, created the sun which then rose from the lake; the first Inca king, Manco Capac (and his wife/sister Mama Ocllo), also appeared from the lake to lead the people of these lands out of the darkness.   I decided to take it easy and tour the island in 2 days, devoting the first to the southern part and the 2nd to the Northern part.  Yeah, you can walk the island in 1 day but I really wanted to relax here.  Not to mention the people on this island are extremely nice, the food is amazing (trout specialties) and the views from this mountainous island are breathtaking:  The turquoise waters surround you, the cordillera Real stand majestic to the east and the grandiose lake to the west with Peru shores seen in the horizon.  During the day the sun shines strong to warm me up while at night the moon takes over and the stars twinkle and seem so close to me.  In particular, Mars looked so big and brightly illuminated.  As for the ruins on the island, they are pleasant to see.  I guess a tiny precursor of some sort before entering the heart of the Inca empire.  But what really made this trip worthwhile is hiking around Isla del Sol, up to its highest peaks and then down around it’s sandy bays.  Now that I am writing this, I wish I plunged into lago Titicaca waters instead of just dipping my feet in it.  It was very cold and I didn’t have my bathing suit with me, no towel to dry myself,… well yeah, I chickened out :(.

Once back in Copacabana, I stayed 1 more day to visit a couple of sadly neglected Inca & pre-Inca sites before getting ready to cross to Peru on a 2 day trip up to Cusco.

Ride up!

Sami

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The Mission



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The Mission

Santa Cruz, 23-Jul-2010

I decided to just go for it.  After all, why not?  Being here, with the bike, this is my time so I’ll extend (again) my vacation.  I will follow Willy’s advice and do the loop through the Jesuit missions then head to jungle and reach Trinidad were Francisco gave me the contact of a local guide.

The following morning, Kilometer 25,719; Santa Cruz, 8-Jul-10 @ 11:10, I headed east through Bolivia’s lowland in the direction of the Brazilian border toward my first Jesuit Mission village:  San Jose de Chiquitos.  But yet again, Bolivia’s roads threw the first punch: a detour via a 150Km stretch of side road that passes through wetlands and farm fields.  Worst, it rained the night before rendering the road worthy of a Woodstock event.  Even trucks and cars had difficulty passing.  In some parts, the mud was packed by press machines turning it into a hard and wet clay, very slippery as if I was riding on ice.  And I saw so many accidents; at one point a fuel tanker slid and flipped upside down.  I got to the accident scene a few minutes later and only a handful of trucks were ahead of me.  People were pointing toward the tanker and shouting.  I couldn’t hear them very well but I just thought: it’s going to explode!  And so many people are close by!  Is the driver stuck?  Are they helping him?  Should I give them a hand?… or should I get out of here?  As an action thriller was playing in my head, I gazed at the tanker and paid more attention to the people.  Wait a minute!  They all had containers or bottles in their hand.  What the h**l!   These guys were filling up!  Free gas!  And here I was sensationalizing the event.  I still did not want to be here; this was so reckless and could turn nasty.  I turned-on my bike and just gunned it, storming by the tanker to continue my road.

I arrived to San Jose de Chiquitos at sunset as dirty and muddied as a pig, Kilometer 26,015; San Jose de Chiquitos, 8-Jul-10 @ 18:00. It took me more than an hour to wash my riding cloth and my bags from the mud which was sprayed on me.  I then headed out to the Plaza to see the mission before settling down in a restaurant in the plaza across from the church.  The majority of the Jesuit missions were painstakingly restored during a period of 25 years lead by Hans Roth, a Swiss architect.  To accomplish the restoration work, Hans Roth & his team actually recruited from the local people and trained them in handicraft and woodwork, somewhat similar to what the Jesuits missionaries did centuries earlier during the initial conquest lead by father Martin Schmidt.  The story of the Jesuits in South America is one of the few, maybe even unique, stories of somewhat good doing that occurred during the colonial era.  The Jesuits, lead by Martin Schmidt (Swiss), in their mission to indoctrinate the local aboriginals to Christianity, built schools teaching the holy bible but also handcrafting and art.   Music was the common link between the Jesuits (and in particular father Schmidt) and the Chiquitanos.  Both loved this art and were equally interested in the sounds and rhythms of the other.  The Chiquitanos people not only became master sculptors & painters – helping build and decorate the beautiful Jesuit churches – but they also learned to build musical instruments (harp, violin, guitar…) and to play them, mixing their music and rhythm with the mess songs & music the Jesuits taught.  The Jesuits didn’t stop there:  they introduced farming, animal domestication, European agriculture techniques,… transforming these people from nomads and hunters to settlers.   And although sadly almost nothing is known about the Chiquitano believes before the Jesuits & Christianity (on purpose?), you have to admire the astucious approach used by the Jesuits and the successful co-existence that stemmed between these 2 cultures.

My route then veered northbound to reach the next mission.  The gravel road was now more packed but very rough, with the usual wave/undulating bumps shacking violently my bike.   In the following 2 hours ride, only timber trucks and a few hoards of cows passed me.  During Jesuit time, this was a lush forest but now – and as far as the eye can see – it’s deforested and desolate.  Clear cutting, for farming and agriculture, took its toll on the local fauna and flora.  I arrived to San Rafael and parked in front of a restaurant on the main road, Kilometer 26,143; San Rafael, 9-Jul-10 @ 14:00.  There were half a dozen trucks loaded with wood also stopped there with their driver having lunch and watching the World Cup final.  I sat with them to chat and share a few laughs: Obviously they were rooting for Spain which I satirically started calling “the conquistador” :).  Actually they were more interested in my trip and my bike vs. the game (which by the way seemed boring).  During our conversation I asked them about the deforestation, its effect on the land, the threat of not having a lumber industry and jobs in the coming years.  “Tranquilo, there are plenty of trees, all the way to Brazil”… the border is less than a 100Km from here and I couldn’t see any forest during my whole ride.  And reforestation? “There’s a government program but we never saw anyone implementing it”… and no one seemed to care.  The government is content to throws the beautiful (and empty) speeches about preserving the land and these guys are more worried about bringing food to the table tonight vs. long term subsistence.

I took off by half time to visit San Rafael before continuing my road to San Miguel, Kilometer 26,199; San Miguel, 9-Jul-10 @ 16:20.  There, the church was closed and the couple of locals sitting on the church’s steps told me the father is probably watching the game :).  I thought to myself the game will be over soon and the father will come back to his cloister so I lingered around with them talking about my trip and listening to their daily life stories.  17:00 came and the father was nowhere to be seen.   On the other hand, an hour separated me from San Ignacio and sundown; I definitely do not want to ride these roads at night so I just saddled up.  San Miguel mission will not be seen :(.

Kilometer 26,239; San Ignacio, 9-Jul-10 @ 18:10: San Ignacio is the defacto center of the Jesuit mission towns and is a striving city.  Its church has been completely reconstructed as a facsimile of the original one, with only the altar and a few paintings & angels being original (restored).  As it was Sunday I headed to the church for the night mass and what an exhilarating experience it was.  The whole town seemed to converge to the church with faithful overflowing into the streets.  Music filled the air, the choir led the singing and the faithful were the chorus.

The Bolivian family were I was staying were extremely nice and Doña Selva a very sociable person.  At night, I joined the many locals who gathered around the hostel small garden and hammock to “charlar”.  As for Don Pepe, he provides tours to the national Park Noel Kemph.  A quick look into my Lonely Planet and it rates the park as a “real Amazonian highlight, spectacular scenery… broad spectrum of flora and fauna…fabulous place to explore…”.  I am in!  Where do I sign?  But Don Pepe quickly squashed my excitement.  The cost is horrendous: U$D500 for transportation, mandatory guides+cook are U$D40/day, + food, + equipment,…  I guess it was good while it lasted.  Ah well, I will still ride to Trinidad for my jungle tour with Francisco’s friend.  Next morning, I saddled up and as I was about to leave, Don Pepe, boasting a wide grin on his face, stopped me.  There’s a family also interested in going to Noel Kemph and will be coming to town tomorrow.  Great!  I parked my bike back in the garden, left all my stuff on it and went touring the city while Pepe “Limon” was organizing the trip.  When I came back late afternoon Pepe’s smile was gone.  Warrup?  Pepe couldn’t find/rent “movilidad” (i.e. transportation); the trip was off.  As I was already committed to go to the park I went to the main Plaza and asked around about tours to Noel Kemph.  Everyone told me to go see “Papio” the only other person who goes to the park.  Sure enough “Papio” picked up the challenge and was preparing for tomorrow’s departure.  Great, I am going to the park!

It was a 6 day tour through an incredible diversity of flora.  We started by hiking through regular woods, then into a forest previously exploited for lumber followed by a palm forest which turns into a thick tropical forest and finally Amazonian jungle.  We then climbed a small hill and exited on the “meseta”, a terrace like pampas doted by oasis and crisscrossed by small streams.  And that’s just on the first day 🙂  We saw tapirs, monkeys, giant rodents, dears and a multitude of birds, hawks, eagles, parrots… not to mention numerous insects.  The forest was littered with termite mounds and ant’s nests – on the ground and in the trees – (leaf-cutter ants (sepe), red ants, giant black ants,…) to the great pleasure of the armadillos which feasts on them.  Of course, most of the animal you only see from afar (it seems in Parque Madidi you can see them closer), but as I mentioned to our guide Candido: seeing an animal free in his habitat, even from a distance, beats a close look through the grills of a cage.  The park is now administered by the local community (La Florida) and I believe it’s the best way to preserve it.  They have deep knowledge of these areas brought down to them through the generations but they also witnessed firsthand the damage corporation and themselves have done and can do to the park (as employer of these corporations or as exploiters of the land):  Deforestation (and in particular targeting a particular species of tree for wood, the Mara trees for example), overfishing, mass killing of local wildlife (currently they do not have enough fish to sustain them, the tapir population is dwindling, the local wolf population is down to less than 10,…).    Today, the only industry that survives is tourism and the community knows all too well why we come here for.  By preserving the park, they preserve themselves.

Once back to San Ignacio, I stayed 1 more day with my Noel Kemph new friends to visit the Jesuit missions I previously missed (remember, San Miguel was closed and Santa Ana was out of my way).  I was then ready to head back to Santa Cruz, a 2 day trip taking me through the final 2 missions of Concepcion (Kilometer 26,421 Concepcion, 20-Jul-10 @ 16:00) and San Javier (which by the way are “not as beautiful” compared to the other missions).  In Santa Cruz, Kilometer 26,720; Santa Cruz, 21-Jul-10 @ 18:10, I chilled for a couple of days with the biker boys (went to the Suzuki dealer again as they allowed me to use their premises & tools to check and clean my bike.  And good thing I did: 1 of the huge chassis bolts was ¾ of the way unscrewed due to all the vibrations!  Amazing what these roads can do.  Even the mechanics were completely flabbergasted by this bolt sight.  But my Suzuki is just perfect, it takes all the punishment these lands (and me) throw at it and does not complain :).

Tomorrow I will start heading north again… can’t wait to reach La Paz.

Ride up!

Sami

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Ruta del Che

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Santa Cruz, 9-Jul-2010

Bolivia is quite a tumultuous country, especially in its central & east parts: cities/states vying for more power or autonomy from the federal government of Evo Morales, different cultures and societies feeling repressed or showing hypocrisy vs. others, villages and communities fighting for their survivals from the controlling hands of the state government who in turn are in a “lucha” vs. the federal bureaucracy and corruption.  Miners, exporters, cocaleros, farmers, bus drivers, etc,… seem to take turn in waging daily strikes and blockades throughout the country.  How does this affect us?  Well, our route will be leading us to the heart of these problematic areas.  But we were lucky: the on-going road strikes to & around Potosi were suspended for a few days allowing us to head there and the riots in Sucre have also been repressed. (Fast forward 1 month: strikes are still on-going in Potosi wrecking havoc with tourists traveling the La Paz/Sucre/Potosi/Uyuni routes.  330 tourists are still trapped in Uyuni, no gas available, not even to go on the Salar tour)

Kilometer 24,588; Potosi, 22-Jun-10 @ 16:45. Potosi is famous for its Cerro Rico; No other mountain in the world contained such richness and affected the history of the world as much.  The Spain monarchy and its economy were so dependent on this silver mine that when one of the ship heading to Spain full of silver was attacked by pirates, it was an economic catastrophe.  It is estimated that since 1546 up to 6 million people (mostly slaves) have died while working in the mine and up to 45,000 tons of silver extracted.   Cerro Potosi is still mined today via cooperative and the working conditions are still as dangerous as the old days.  These workers do not expect to live beyond 40 due to contracting silicosis, yet after talking to a few of them in the city, it’s a voluntary choice they take. To roughly quote a drunken miner: “I prefer dying at forty with some money vs. living worthless in these streets”.  To each his logic I guess.   In Potosi, the main attraction is to actually visit the mine, and we went on a tour as happy tourists:  walking inside the mine, crawling through narrow passages, dropping into holes to see men at work, hearing miners blowing dynamites to shatter rocks in search for silver.  But the real shock came when in one of the mine’s side tunnels we met a 13 year old kid, exhausted and barely conscious from dehydration.  I gave him my water bottle which he gulped down in seconds.  I asked him what was he doing here? “My dad is an associate, he owns this tunnel and he makes me work here…”  He starts at 6:00 every day.  And where is your dad? “Drinking in the village”.  It was 11:00 AM!   That was a hard fall back to reality; this boy will not live to see 30.  We demanded to exit the mine immediately, which our guide reluctantly accepted.  For them, this is normal.

Unfortunately, my riding buddies left the next day.  They are great company and we had fun times but their schedule is more constrained then mine.  Most riders I met were on a tight schedule: drop in, check the big attraction then keep on riding.  And as you have noticed I got the luxury to linger around, stopping in many places and visiting + enjoying each town to its fullest.  Here, there was the famous mint museum, churches, convent, monastery from the colonial times, the local market… A few days later, when I called the guys from Sucre, they were already at the Bolivia/Peru border…. crazy!  They could only spend 1 night in each city on their way north.

Kilometer 24,748; Sucre, 25-Jun-10 @ 17:25. Sucre, the white city, is probably the most beautiful city in Bolivia.  Charming streets to stroll in, a fascinating market (with lots of food stalls 🙂 and a lively night scene.  It’s also the cradle of independence and history of Bolivia and the city is very proud of this heritage.  And to make it even better, I bumped again into Carmen and we spent the next 4 days just chilling, going on the normal visits and just “living it up”.

My route through Bolivia will now take me east, doing a detour to Santa Cruz.  There are some amazing parks in these eastern provinces but most importantly, I wanted to retrace and visit the last villages/places where Che Guevara fought, was captured and then executed.   It wasn’t to be that easy: On my way to Samaipata a police checkpoint told me to take another route which will save me 100Km.  Kilometer 24,898; Aiquile, 29-Jun-10 @ 13:40. True enough, my map showed another gravel road cutting through the country.  And how’s the route condition? “Tranquilo, with the moto it’s the same as the current route”.  During my whole trip I always got the best advices on which routes to take, but not this time.  The gravel and dirt road was pretty good for the first 20Km but then, it turned for the worst.  I should have u-turned but I just thought it will be a small bad stretch.  Well, it turned out this was not a drivable road, it was mainly used by the local mines and couple of villages.  I was driving in ruts of sand, crossing rivers by going down their banks and driving through their beds, heading up and down mountains where the mines are located and passing bulldozers clearing the roads.  I had sand flying from the front wheel all the way up to my knees as if I was driving in water.  I never subscribed to do a Dakar!!  It was the hardest driving conditions I ever faced, absolute hell.  This 120Km stretch took me 5 hours and caused me to fall… twice.  Downhill, through sand, with a 230Kg bike & luggage, exhausted, I just could not hold it: the front wheel dug in the sand and flipped me sideways.  And it was a bad fall: part of my front brake lever broke so did the bike shift lever.  To shift gears I needed to twist my ankle and hit the peg, which rarely worked.  I passed a few small villages, asked if I could stop and sleep anywhere as I was exhausted, but people just looked at this dust & mud covered dirty guy and immediately refused to accept me in.  Thanks guys, just add to my pain.  I finally reached the main road and stopped at a police checkpoint to see if they will let me in.  The boys actually accepted that I crash in the barracks, but when their commander saw me pulling in, he insisted that it’s against regulation: I could not stay with them.  And since when Bolivianos have regulation? 🙂  It made me laugh and at that moment, somehow, I felt absolute ease and calm.  Strange, but I was in peace.  It was already 19:00 but I just took a break at the local street side resto-bar, had a drink chatting with a couple of locals, then put on my helmet, blasted my favorite music and kept on riding.  And it felt so good riding under the stars.  I also got a tip to stay at Andoriña hostel in Samaipata and it wasn’t to disappoint; the place and managers were amazing.  I took a shower, went to the plaza to eat then headed to bed and slept like a baby.  Kilometer 25,136; Samaipata, 29-Jun-10 @ 20:45

I chilled the next day in Samaipata and hiked to the mystic pre-Inca site called El-Fuerte with Valeska and Regina.  Then late afternoon, I went to the local welder and worked on a quick fix to my foot shifter.  Hey, I was going to ride the “ruta del Che”!  Very few people actually do this route even if a lot of tourists actually want to.  The issue lies with the roads leading to La Higuera:  it can only be reached by narrow mountain roads via infrequent/non-reliable local buses.  So either you need lots of time on your hand or your own transportation or take a private tour (which charges U$D150!!).

… keep reading about my Ruta del Che after these pics.

Photo Album

or click on “page 2” below to see the photo album.