The Jesuit Trek
Leaving Samaipata after almost a month is like leaving home all over again, and riding into big-city Santa Cruz comes as a bit of a slap in the face. At least the local hostel is groovey and I make the most of using some decent wifi for a change and Skype one of my best mates back home and the relief after so long is instant and satiating. Travelling like this you always have the option to just load-up-and-go when a town doesn't ring your bell, with two wheels at your disposal and no bus timetable to conform to, the road is always beckoning. Until, that is, after getting gas on the way out of town Aroha denies that decision when she just won’t starter-motor-start. I did actually promise to get that dodgy-battery issue taken-care-of in the next big-city didn’t I?
Turns out I will after all as I’m push-started by passing locals and ride around the corner to the rows of motorbike-stores where it’s one new battery por favour amigo and one new front tyre like I also promised I’d sort but wouldn’t have had I rode out of town this morning as intended.
Heading Way Out East
Leaving Santa Cruz take two goes much better and I am off on a mission the long-way-round the Jesuit- Missiones circuit, through Amazonian towns and the back door ride up the Andes into La Paz. I give myself a couple of weeks for this and before you know it that groovy asphalt stops dead and the fun starts all over again. Thick gnarly dust, and some riders might love it, but me being inexperienced in it, overloaded with too much gear, unable to pick Aroha up on my own if I topple, well, let's just say my thoughts about it rhyme with fear and loathing.
In the midst of this very challenging day I have a rest stop and bump into an opposite-direction Frenchman overlander in his huge 4x4 campervan, which I can't help but feel at the time is a better tool for the job, and we chat in our only common language, which is crap-Spanish. The oasis promised-land of San Jose de Chiquitos and the start of the missiones villages finally turns up in the far-far-eastern Bolivian wilderness knocking right on Brazil’s backdoor. And it’s just magic.
Every 100 kilometres from here on in are small mission-towns with big churches from the 1700s, where each one seems to out-do the former with graceful town squares and ever-more intricately carved and gilded altars as if the handful of Jesuit-priests stationed here during the colonial-period were engaged in a cathedral-grandeur-contest. The claim that indigenous Jesuit-trained craftsman even rivalled those in Europe back in their day is strongly supported and evidenced right here, in the middle-of-absolutely-backwater-nowhere.
I eventually get myself to large-town-refreshment-stop Trinidad after a few episodes of insisting the-map-must-be-wrong-because-my-navigation-cannot-possibly-be. There’s a very strong feeling here of being on the frontier of nothing but more jungle, so I take the opportunity to stock up on what l hope will keep me and Aroha going through this chapter and round the back way to La Paz; enough cash and enough top-up engine-oil. Which will hopefully avoid a repeat of the last-250km-to-Trinidad-situation where I scraped-only-just-enough coins together for one final tank of gas and no-breakfast thanks to this traveller’s naive assumption there would be plenty of ATMs in backwater jungle towns.
I also survive the dodgiest ‘ferry’ crossing ever leaving Trinidad on a raft I’m fairly certain was built sometime in the early 1900s captained by a kid that couldn’t possibly reach the pedals on a pushbike, all the while reciting my mantra, ‘I’m sure I’ll be fine’.
And then, after a painful saddle-weary final push I make it to long-awaited-jungle-jewel Rurrenabaque, who delivers on the promises of rad-cafes to watch the 2010 Football World Cup matches in and about a dozen different river and jungle-tour options. Now this is a place where even the cafe menus come in Hebrew, so it’s a pretty sure bet there’s also going to be gringos by the 24hr-ride-from-La Paz-busload, but friendly faces and conversations in your own language just about satisfy as much as that many-a-long-dusty-mile-dreamt-of espresso. And wouldn't you know it, I even bump into my old mate Ngaire, who saved my life a few towns back after I got drugged and mugged, so I get to finally buy her a drink to say thanks. And as I do, I grab a crew of buddies and hop on a canoe-dug-out to tour-up rivers teeming with piranha and alligators and pink-river-dolphins, wade through marshes up to your waist looking for anacondas and get mobbed by cheeky squirrel-monkeys looking for a free-feed in your backpack. All this is the Amazonian jungle.
Heading Back Up the Hill
I start to feel that itch like I got to get going outta Rurre, which is easier said than done with its beautiful tropical weather and a good crew, and a bike that won’t start. Hmm, troubleshoot, push-start to a mechanic and it’s an electrical problem, so maybe when I got those kids to clean the bike the other day at that makeshift car wash on the side of the road it should have occurred to me to not have them douse all those electrical cables in ultra-high-pressure water. The Bolivian-jungle-mechanic-story is it can be temporarily-wired-up so I can ride to La Paz where surely I'll have better luck getting a permanent fix. I e-mail home some mechanic-buddies at Scooterazzi in Wellington for a second-opinion, hey fellas is the bike really okay to ride with this fault? Yeah sure bro, no worries. Once again, get going outta Rurre.
Time eventually comes to suck-up-some-courage and do what you’ve been avoiding telling Mum about and ride up 'The World’s Most Dangerous Road'. Which apart from the 600m cliff-drops on the hair-pins is only about as bad as all the rest of the Bolivian roads. In one afternoon I ascend from the steamy-jungle-lowland-interior to gasping-lack-of-O2-Andes-highlands, wringing the handlebar to crest over the lip of the canyon that houses the World’s Highest Capital of La Paz. It's a miraculous sight on a journey of amazing sights, that whole mountainside with a huge city just resting on it. La Paz let's me get Aroha's electrics sorted and because I just can’t help myself, I ride back down The World’s Most Dangerous Road on a mountainbike this time, then party with all the other gringos in town who I find just like me, have absolutely fallen hard for this magical mystery tour called Bolivia.