Jan 26, 2024

My (brief) adventure in Bolivia.

My (brief) adventure in Bolivia.

A little something different.

I'm Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle. By popular demand, today's post is a members-only piece on my trip to Bolivia. Be sure to check out our note at the end.

Our first wreck happened in the first couple hours of the first day, which in some ways was a relief. 

All morning we had been peppering our guide Chris with questions about the trip. What was the most dangerous? What was the most exciting? What do we do at police checkpoints? What mistakes do most people make? How scary is "Death Road," really?

For each question he had a story — almost all of them about how a certain group he had over the last decade of touring Bolivia on motorcycles had screwed up in some memorable way. The Belgians who crashed on this turn or the Colorado couple who got stuck in a day of rain on the mountain or the Israeli who couldn't decide whether to stay on the bike or ride in the support truck or the Russians who were just uncontrollably rambunctious and wild. Each story had some new fun tale of adventure and danger tied to a specific group that had been burned into Chris's memory, most of them involving some kind of accident or near-accident.

Finally, my cousin Marco asked the question I, for one, was also wondering: "I'm starting to feel like I want to hear a story about a trip where nobody ever dropped the bike. Does that ever happen?" Marco said with a nervous laugh.

Chris thought for a moment.

A few seconds passed.

"There was this band of brothers a few trips ago who all stayed up the whole trip," he said.

Another pause.

"But they had been touring the world on motorcycles and were pretty experienced."

Marco was the first to go down.

Me (left) chatting with our guide Chris during a stop.

Our trip started in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, a "big, hot, humid, crowded city" as my cousin Lico described it to me before I arrived. This was a trip of cousins. My cousin Marco, a naturopathic doctor treating neurological issues from Seattle who had years of experience riding a street bike in Hawaii. My cousin Lico, who grew up between Mexico and Texas and New Mexico and has spent his entire life riding and driving and fixing anything with a motor. His wife, Linda, an outfitter who runs horse stables across the Southwest but would spend this trip as Lico's passenger. My cousin Willy, Linda's son, exactly my age, a white water river guide living in New Mexico. And me, the writer from Philadelphia who had never ridden more than 20 miles in a day and had never driven anything bigger than a 250cc dirt bike.

Thanks to my late Granny's insistence on all of us traveling with each other, my cousins and I all essentially grew up together and have remained extremely close into adulthood. This was neither the first nor the last time we'd go to some far away place together but it was, so far, probably the craziest thing we'd done as a group.

Santa Cruz was, in fact, crowded and hot and humid, and also combustible. The city is Bolivia's largest, with an estimated 3 million people, and it sits east of the easternmost portion of the Andes Mountains (which are visible on a clear day). It's built on a series of densely populated rings and perpendicular roads that run through the rings as you get into the city. If you're ever lost, Chris told me, you simply find a ring you know then ride in a circle until you get back to a familiar spot.

A Google maps view of Santa Cruz showing the rings that make up the city.

And there’s plenty of tension in Santa Cruz. A few weeks before I landed at the Santa Cruz airport, the right-wing governor of Santa Cruz — Luis Camacho — had arrived at the very same airport only to be apprehended by police and promptly thrown in jail. He was charged with terrorism for a "coup" in 2019 against socialist leader Evo Morales. Camacho's arrest sparked weeks of protests by his supporters — protests that would pop up during our trip and are still going on now (along with protests from supporters of Morales who want him back on the presidential ballot). In Bolivia, they call these protests bloqueos, or blockades, and they are an effective way for Bolivians to express their displeasure with the current government. Often, days- or weeks-long bloqueos — where entire towns or roads get shut down — will end with the resignation or removal of certain politicians or policies.

Unfortunately, Camacho's story is not unique. Bolivia is widely considered one of the most corrupt countries in South America, and a long line of leaders have suffered the same fate he did. In the last few years alone, Evo Morales was forced out of office in 2019 after protests against his administration spread across the country, ultimately leading to the police mutinying and the military urging him to step down. He was replaced by Jeanine Añez's interim right-wing government, which promptly charged Morales for sedition and terrorism and issued an arrest warrant for him, then detained the top officials from his administration.

Morales was never imprisoned (he fled to Mexico), but in 2020, the current President Luis Arce was elected. His victory brought Morales's party back to power, and they returned the favor by prosecuting Añez on terrorism charges. She was held in pretrial detention for more than a year, and then sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2022. She remains in jail today.

Now Arce's administration has arrested Camacho, citing his support for protests against Morales, and promptly tossed him in jail, too. Santa Cruz residents have mostly moved on from any hope of freeing Añez, but they continue to protest against Camacho's detention in hopes that he doesn't suffer the same fate.

And here I was, thinking the 2024 U.S. election was getting messy.

My plans had already gone sideways thanks to an illness that kept me from a friend's wedding in Mexico and a Frontier Airlines screw-up that made me miss my first flight to Bolivia. I was supposed to be coming from Mexico to Bolivia a day earlier, but instead was flying from Philly through Miami to Santa Cruz. By the time we arrived at Chris's house to load up on the bikes, I had been in transit for almost 24 hours and was coming off five or six hours of sleep on a red-eye flight. There wasn't much time to relax or worry.