Skip to content

The longest way to La Paz

We left Calama knowing it would be a two day ride to La Paz. First to Arica and then on to La Paz via Ruta 11. The bikers in Calama warned us of road closures near Arica and advised us to have a hearty lunch at the last big village before the Camarones where the road is shut for 3 hours from 2pm to 5pm. Choosing to ignore this sage advice, we pushed as hard as possible to the general area and having passed signs which mentioned a closing time of 5pm and the customs gate for Iquique region, we thought the worst was over.

This was clearly a popular biking route as we bumped into a troupe of Brazilian bikers doing a mini south America tour. The road was good and not terribly busy so we were making good time.

We stopped for a fruit juice and spotted two other GS riders fly past , clearly also headed for Arica. We quickly set about trying to catch them up when the road suddenly changed to drop away to a huge canyon. The road had a 500m drop on the right and the quality deteriorated rapidly. We carefully rode on and suddenly a huge line of traffic (mostly trucks) snaked up the mountain. The ominous red signs of “Men working, caution!” started in abundance and as we filtered past all the parked trucks we realised this was the famous road closure. We found the other GS’s at the front of the line and parked up near them. They turned out to be a really nice Swiss couple called Estelle and Adrien and they keep their moto journeys on a blog too.


Outside of Arica, some green in a desert


More dusty/sandy roads

Chatting to them helped pass the time and we eventually made it to Arica having waited until 17:45 to be let through. It was dark when we arrived in Arica, which, incidentally, was having all of its major roads dug up too and the plethora of campings we’d seen gaily advertised on the site were shut for the winter season! Adrien managed to convince one campsite to let us stay under the strict understanding that we would not use the swimming pool. Preferring to avoid hypothermia, we agreed to their reasonable conditions.


The high road (long drop down!)


Waiting for the road block to clear, nice view!

The next morning we left for Bolivia. The SatNav assured us the journey would take 6 hours. Off we set for the Ruta 11 and a ride through the national park. An hour outside Arica we were met with familiar scenes of road closures and timetables as to when we could go. The choice was to stay on Ruta 11 and face a 3hour wait for the road to open or to trust the Sat-Nav which told us to go via Peru on Ruta 5… we regretfully decided to trust SatNav and made our way back to Arica and back to Ruta 5.

The border crossing took a monumental 2 hours to complete as we competed against hordes of bus tours and tried to explain that we were only passing through Peru to Bolivia. Having finally extricated ourselves from customs, we began our journey to Bolivia. Tacna first and then onto Tarata and what is, according to SatNav, a good road to Bolivia. Two hours of hair pin bends and ascents and descents later we realised with dismay that we were still hours from Bolivia. After missing running down marauding donkeys and more rabid dogs, the SatNav smugly told us to take the next right. The “next right” consisted of a 45deg incline single lane of gravel and dirt. It was a road masquerading as an avalanche. Needless to say, we took the road and followed 2 more hours of perilous hairpin inclined bends on sheer drops of at least 300m. Alex was getting more and more tired after all these bends and eventually fell on a corner (the road was pitted with trenches from previous trucks which tied up the wheel). We got to the top of the mountain only to be greeted with the now ubiquitous “PARE” sign foretelling another road closure.


Yet another road closure, this time at 5000m.

Alex had pretty much lost the will to live at this point but we were delighted when the road was opened just for us and we picked back up to sail past steam rollers and workers making good the previously trenchy roads into flat mud tracks instead.


The nicer parts of the dirt track : free of truck trenches but still no safety barrier to almost certain death below

At 5:30pm it was clear that the sun was setting and that the roads were nowhere near good enough to tackle at night so we looked in earnest for a likely sleeping place. A flat plain eventually came in sight and we set up camp.


The advantage of being in the middle of nowhere…


…is that the stars are your own.

We also managed to break the number 1 rule of survival : having enough water. We had literally no water on our bikes having promised ourselves to fill up at a petrol station and there being none in Peru on the road we’d taken. After a sad dinner of bean stew with the water from the tin can saving our hydration we slept through the coldest night yet. We woke up tired (an altitude of 5000m meant we had little sleep – our hearts raced all night and we were plagued with bad dreams, both side effects of altitude sickness) and faced a breakfast of bean juice and onion.


The campsite, less romantic without the blanket of stars .

Once breakfasted, we set off to try to rejoin a real road to get to La Paz. Sadly, the road deteriorated further from the night before and became little more than a single lane sandpit with two deep ruts from the infrequent truck traffic and the occasional gravel pit. Alex slipped on the sand twice within the first hour and a lone passing car took pity on us as alex dejectedly picked up the bike once more with the help of Simon. They gave us a bottle of water and some coca leaves and brightly said the road was “not too bad” from the direction they’d come in. Alex brightened up at this but once back on the sand pit road promptly fell off the bike in a spectacular fall that saw the bike go up the sand embankment and Alex about a metre from the bike.


Alex’s nemesis, sand, particularly the hidden soft bits on this trail.

Eventually, the sand firmed up into dirt and then into gravel and eventually, after two hours, into tarmac again. Alex almost wept from happiness! Not only were we treated to tarmac, we found ourselves racing through fields of llamas and alpacas.


The return of tarmac. Left takes you to sandy nothingness for a day and a half, rightt takes you elsewhere. We had a date with the road to La Paz instead.


A welcome sight


…although they refused to be interviewed by journeylimitless

We eventually made it to the border of Peru : Bolivia with little incident. More road closures and diversions which for some reason, we were allowed to ride through, later and we got to Bolivia, finally! The crossing was hassle free and with only 1 hour to sundown and $5 to the police for a stamp, we set back onto the highway to La Paz.


The lake which separates Peru from Bolivia

Entering La Paz was an interesting phenomenon. The roads were filled with minibuses, which work as the local pubic transport. These buses push in front of you, beep constantly, appear to be about to run into your side when you have right of way and brake at the last minute. Despite their aggression, we made it to the edge of Alto where our long descent to Calacoto began. The SatNav, at its earnest best, took us through a “shortcut”. After much U-turning and misunderstood one way systems, we ended up on what can only be described as a precipice with a cobbled surface auditioning as a road. Downhill is a kind descriptive, this was an almost vertical drop with an equally steep set of hairpins on similarly slippery cobbles for 1km. The problem was that the first road was not too bad, releasing ourselves slowly on the brake we eventually made it down the first set of slopes. Once it was impossible to come back up again, we were faced with a road masquerading as a ski jump, covered in potholes, uneven metal bumps and a busy road at the base. This ski jump was a good 100m long and the people and cars looked tiny at the bottom. Simon made it down first, Alex, trying not to weep, inched down on the brake, taking a breather everytime her foot slipped on a rock and threatened to send her and the bike careening down the slope into the traffic. About a lifetime later, Alex made it through and we continued to Calacoto and the safety of our hosts in La Paz.

All content and images Copyright © 2016 Journey Limitless. Website designed by One Day Labs.