The Tarija Trip
by Jake Beaty
captions by Jennifer Beaty
It turns out you can’t trust everything you read on the internet. Google maps said the trip from Cochabamba to Sucre would be 346 km (215 miles) and take 6 hours and 57 minutes. It said the trip from Sucre to Tarija would be 500 km (310 miles) and take 7 hours and 24 minutes. I had heard that the road between Cochabamba and Sucre was unpaved and “feo,” or “ugly,” but c’mon! Really, how bad could it be? I knew that Google maps underestimated driving times in Bolivia, so I added an hour to each leg of the trip. I wasn’t even close.
Jennifer had spied an FJ75 Toyota Land Cruiser for sale at the car market a few weeks earlier, and with my dad’s help, I was doing everything possible to get the cash to Bolivia in time to buy the car, transfer the title and insure it for the trip. The FJ75 is a newer, longer version of Toyota’s Land Cruiser than the well-known, nearly indestructible FJ40. If I had been able to buy the FJ75 in time, I could have tied my bike to the roof rack and we could have spread our gear out wide and far inside.
I was not able to get the cash in time, however, so we took my FJ40, a rig that I’ve named Lucy. The boys were positively jammed in the back with all our gear, and I had lashed my bike to the front bumper. As an afterthought, I locked the bike to the bumper – you know, just in case. Very soon I would be so glad I had thought of the lock!
Lucy packed - but before Jennifer and Sophia's bags!
In the weeks leading up to the trip, Jennifer and I had been busy every spare moment with a special Bolivian infirmity – tramites. <TRAM-ee-tays> Jennifer was working on obtaining ID cards for the boys, and I was trying to renew my driver’s license. After jumping through 5,000 flaming hoops, sometimes backwards, on the day before the trip, I still didn’t have my license and one of our boys didn’t have his ID card with our last name.
A little over a year before, Jennifer and I had taken the same road out of the city that we were about to take, and I didn’t have my license then either. As we pulled through the checkpoint, which at the time I thought was only a toll booth, a police officer was scoping us out. I hesitated just a second too long, and met and held the officer’s gaze. He motioned for us to pull over.
We both had to get out of the car and go into their office. He grilled us about the car, if it was indeed ours or not, asked why I was driving without a license, and asked if I knew how much the fine was. He said we would have to go all the way back into the center of the city, register the offense, pay the fine, there would be a mark on my license, and on and on. There go our plans for a relaxing weekend outside the city! Then he mentions something about a “refresco,” a “soda.” Indeed! I can help you obtain a refresco, you’ve been so kind and helpful, after all! A crinkly handshake later, and we’re back on the road again. Whew! That could have been a lot worse!
I tried SO hard to get my license before this trip! I imagined repeating the same experience for a thousand miles south and north through the entire country, if we even made it that far. How many $14 “refrescos” would we buy? What if a particular officer was feeling especially tough or needed to display a little power? By not having Samuel’s new ID card, were we risking charges of child trafficking?
We stopped the car about 15km outside the city; the checkpoint is at 20km. Jennifer and I changed seats. She popped the clutch and old Lucy jerked forward. Samuel flew backward, whacked his head, and started crying. Jennifer turned to comfort him and turned back to the road and turned back to Samuel. The steering wheel followed her head. And so we approached the first checkpoint, swerving and crying and gringo.
Our hearts were beating hard when we stopped the car. “Where are you going?” the toll booth operator asked. “Tarija!” she blurted. “Well, Sucre first and then Tarija.” Jennifer’s voice was tight with apprehension. “5 Bs,” the toll operator said. Jennifer paid the toll, took the ticket and I urgently whispered “Go, go, go!” The police had not turned to look at us yet. Let’s keep it that way! She popped the clutch more gingerly this time and Samuel was ready so there were no tears or swerving as we pulled through the first check, exhaling big sighs of relief. Phew! Now let me drive!
I bought a road map of Bolivia (from Canada, nonetheless) before my first trip in March 2012 and we were using it on this drive. I asked a friend who goes back and forth between Sucre frequently to confirm the accuracy of my map, and he even drew some arrows on it for me. How tough would it be for Bolivia to do the same thing with a couple road signs?
Down about a third of a tank of gas, we stopped to fill up at the town I felt was near our next turn point. The station attendant confirmed my thoughts and we took the next turn, a completely unmarked intersection in the middle of a dingy little pueblo. I was glad it was daylight. How hard would this be at dark, I wondered. It wasn’t long before I would discover.
The pavement ended soon and the cobblestone road began. This isn’t so bad! What are all those whiners talking about? Shoot, the faster I went, the smoother the ride! Over 70 miles outside the city, the countryside was gorgeous! The rain had just ended. The hills were green, the skies filled with shredded clouds, and the air was fresh and clean. I could feel my spirits lifting with each kilometer of cobble. Jennifer seemed happy, the boys were chatting and laughing with each other, and Sophia was clearly enjoying her experience in the car seat. If only it could be this way for the whole trip.
The sun set earlier than I expected. We looked on the map for the next landmark – is this the big river crossing? What’s the name of the next town we expect to see? I thought we’d be farther along than this by now. How long has it been – 4 hours and we’re still far from halfway?
We entered Aiquile in the blackness. It was a new moon weekend, and clouds hid any stars that might have helped. Overtaking a car stopped at a wye, interior lights blazing, I felt some comfort in knowing we weren’t the only ones searching for our way in the darkness. Some comfort it was, as I went the wrong way at the wye. Fortunately the dead end came sooner than later. I found our way into town only to come upon giant heaps of dirt lined up in a row across both directions of traffic. What the heck?
People blockade roads here as a protest measure, something I discovered in my very first visit, and I assumed that’s what this was about too. I considered getting out and moving the metal barrel and tractor tire that blocked the gap between two piles of dirt, but decided against it and drove over the median instead. Then I drove up onto the sidewalk and past the piles of dirt. I felt pretty good about myself until I came to the piles of dirt at the other end of the street also. I crossed a ditch, found a parallel dirt road and finally escaped back to the main path. In the whole experience, there was not even a hint at why the road was blocked or which direction we ought to go. Survival of the fittest, or something.
Leaving Aiquile is where the road got “ugly.” Not even cobblestone anymore, it was rocks and dust with deep ruts, potholes, unmarked turns and, to me, apparently random speed bumps. My headlights were not adjusted well, so they aimed high and left even on the low beam setting. I tried to keep my bike out of the way of my headlights as much as possible when I tied it in place, but the frame and rear wheel still deflected and diffused the light. Apparently this was not enough to please the other drivers, because every oncoming vehicle flashed their high beams at me from a distance. I would flash my high beams back intending to communicate that I was already using my low beams, and then they would bright me again immediately before passing.
Out of nowhere, the road improved to a super clean section of blacktop and I let myself relax a little. Big mistake! This is still Bolivia! Rectangular rocks the size of babies were strewn in my lane directly ahead, so I yanked the steering wheel to the left to avoid them at which point we met an oncoming truck. Somehow we managed to slip by the oncoming truck in the space of one lane without catastrophe. The big rocks filled the southbound lane for a couple miles and ended just as suddenly as they began.
A daylight picture of a similar stretch of road under construction
Our B&B did not have parking, so I drove to the parking garage that the owner indicated, but it was already closed for the night. As a last resort, I parked the car in the open in the main square. A puffy inebriated man said he would guard the car for me so that no one would steal anything. I was immediately suspicious.
I resent the cultural practice of “guarding” the car, anyway, but what could I do? In the daylight we’re obliged to pay a few coins to the seedy types that prowl the streets with the promise that they’ll guard our car, but it’s really just extortion. Try not paying once and see how that goes for you.
Now it’s after midnight, I’m exhausted, and I have another long drive the next day. I thank the drunken guy for “guarding” my car, hoping he’s not about to steal or destroy it instead, and as I walk back to the B&B, I give the car to God again and ask Him to protect it.
Jennifer asked me in the morning if I saw the lightning overnight or heard the thunder and the rain. It was as violent a storm as she’d ever heard. She awakened periodically between one and four, partly from the noise of the storm, and partly to tend to Sophia. She’d pray for the car each time she woke up, but we didn’t know if the car would even still be there the next morning until I went to check after breakfast.
I walked with fear from the B&B to the square, my heart racing. If my bike is stolen, do we even bother pressing on to Tarija, or just return back to Cochabamba? If the car is stolen, do we just get in a bus? What if it’s destroyed or smashed up?
I craned my neck to see my car as I walked around the corner, and it was still there! Then my brow furrowed in confusion. I could see the rear tire of my bike, but it was not on top of the bumper anymore, it was on the ground. As I walked closer I could see that my whole bike was there, but it was untied and upside down – so glad for the lock! Then I noticed that the hood was wedged open about a foot with a brick. The battery was upside down and dripping acid water all over everything, but at least it was still there! There’s no other obvious damage under the hood, and everything else seems to be in place. I rounded the front of the car and went to the driver’s side to inspect. No windows were broken; there were no new scratches or dents or pry marks. This could have been so much worse!
I flipped the battery back over and tried to start the engine. It turned over, but didn’t cough. I prayed a short prayer, and went back to look under the hood. I saw that the wire from the coil to the distributor cap was disconnected. I made the connection, and tried again to start the car. It coughed but then died – at least 20 times! Meanwhile, people are staring, talking to each other and pointing. No one offers the faintest bit of concern or assistance. Finally the engine coughed and sputtered, but it died again. I looked under the hood one more time, but I couldn’t see anything obviously, horribly wrong. I tried the key again, c’mon, Lucy! It caught, ran weakly for a while, and died again. I rested my forehead on the steering wheel, said another short prayer, and turned the key. This time it started and ran, so I floored it and set off a nearby car alarm. That felt pretty good!
Jennifer and kids arrived by taxi from the B&B as I was tying the bike back on the bumper. I brought extra rope just in case, but Michael found my original ropes in the tree next to the car! We loaded the bags into the car while it idled. I heard explosions and drums in the distance – I figured it must be protestors. I didn’t even look up, keeping my head under the hood, trying to figure out how to tie the battery down. The explosions kept getting closer, and I’m primarily annoyed that they are disturbing my baby. I only looked up as the clot of marchers was rounding the corner, fixing to lock us into our parking spot. I yanked the rope from the battery tray, pulled the rod, dropped the hood and ran to jump into my seat. Jennifer was saying, “hurry, hurry, hurry!” As I closed the door, released the brake and shifted into first, a parking attendant lady came up to collect her fare for my occupying a spot on the square. Meanwhile the marchers are getting closer. I shook my head at the lady, popped the clutch, and raced away just in time to avoid getting trapped. Phew! The look on her face and a transit cop (half a block down our path) was priceless!
I drove back to the B&B to return the keys and ask for directions to the mechanic friend of the owner. The roads in downtown Sucre are narrow, barely two lanes wide. The right lane becomes parking. I saw the “shop” after I’d already driven past; it’s just an opening in the wall on the left. The whole right lane was already full of parked cars. The cars behind me started honking as I paused to deliberate. I looked to the left. Hmm, the sidewalk looked wide. I drove up onto it as Jennifer exhales, “Oooh!” (or it might have been “Nooo!”) and I put it in reverse to back down the sidewalk back to the shop. If you don’t like my driving, stay off the sidewalk!
The guys at the shop helped me, and we chatted about thieves and my bike and the Land Cruiser. They put on and tightened a missing nut, added some distilled water to the battery, and rinsed off some of the acid. Just before I can put the car into gear to drive away, a young transit cop on his motorcycle approached from behind, glared at us angrily, and motioned with a jerk for us to get off the sidewalk. He stayed behind us for almost the whole block and I’m worried about the zeal of authority that comes with youth when we stop three cars back at the stoplight. (Am I getting old?) He passed us then to creep up to the line, and Jennifer and I let out a big sigh of relief – number 87 of the trip, or what? We turned right, and drove out of Sucre – two hours later than desired, but driving my own car, and everything present and functioning, including my bike. Thank You Lord for that storm!
We made great time from Sucre to Potosí! The road was paved, there were lane lines, km markers, and even a few distance to go signs – what a luxury! Even being twisty-turny, up and down, ziggy-zaggy, we made 150 km in 2.5 hours, a speedy-feeling 37 mph average.
Potosí has a restaurant on a high tower that rotates to give a 360 degree view of the city. I had eaten there twice during my visit in 2012 – very cool! We tried to get there again, and drove through the center of town in the attempt. It was nearly gridlock traffic, cars and buses were honking from every direction, and somehow, of all days, it was my “placa” day.
In an attempt to reduce congestion in the cities, cars with license plates that end in certain numbers are restricted from the center on certain days. In Cochabamba, my plate, ending in 0, is restricted on Mondays. (I learned that the hard way, paying another 100 Bs fine, this one legit and registered in the city center and everything.) In Potosí, apparently, 0’s are restricted on Fridays. Too late, we saw the police. And they saw us.
I had just been wondering about how bad it might be if we met the wrong officer. Could they take my car from me? They’re not that corrupt here, are they? Just a “refresco,” right? But driving with an expired license? Downtown on placa day? What if they just impounded my car for a few days? Could they send me to jail? Maybe just hang out in a cell for 8 hours? What about my bike? Could I take it and we ride on a bus to Tarija? I guess we were about to find out.
“Young man, may I see your license,” said the lady cop. It wasn’t a question. She looked at it briefly, and then handed it to a big dude who approached my window. Jennifer started talking fast and furious while he tried to focus on my license. He could hardly get out a word. “We’re new to the city,” she burst out. “We’re from Cochabamba. We’re trying to get to the spinning restaurant. You see it down there? That’s the one. We want to go there. We didn’t know about the placa restriction. It’s different in Cochabamba. Can you just tell us how to get out of here? We don’t want to cause any trouble!” Just please don’t look at the expiration date!
He appears befuddled the whole time, unable to concentrate on my license while Jennifer railed on. He looked at me, then looked at her, and finally handed my license back to me. He told us which way to go to get to the restaurant and told us to have a nice day. He never did notice the expiration date. Jennifer and I sing our new theme song, a simultaneous big sigh of relief. We drove directly to the restaurant, but the gate was closed. Some locals told us to honk, but my horn didn’t work – thanks to the storm, a wet relay switch like last time? Can you imagine, driving in Bolivia without a horn? It’s like not having brakes, or a steering wheel! So we drove away. We drove in circles again, actually.
We finally found another restaurant, and when I walked in, the ladies in the kitchen shrieked and jumped backwards, hiding away from me around the corner. I poked my head in and said “boo!” They jumped and shrieked again. I smiled real big. That was fun! [Note from Jennifer: Sophia was also a huge hit here. Every single time we glanced towards the little serving window, the ladies in the kitchen were crowded around, oohing and ahhing at the little white baby!]
We ordered our food and sat the boys with their backs to the devil box, known to most people as a television. We’ve seen how their minds shut down, leaving them motionless with mouths agape and eyes unblinking. We need to eat and go, not stare with minds turned off at the devil box.
Back on the road at 3:00 pm, we filled up with gas at Kuchu Ingenio, a town name I could not remember, so later, after the fight, I called it Ingenerio Wackwacka. It turns out that was an important intersection, but I hadn’t looked at the map so I just continued driving south. I remarked to Jennifer after about 15 minutes, “Gosh, there don’t seem to be many cars on this road.” “You took the better road, right?” she asked. “Yeah, I guess so. I don’t know,” I reply.
Jennifer was looking for town names from the map on the signs that randomly and uselessly appear along the road. After half an hour, we finally reached a town that shows up on the map – we’d been going the wrong way! There’s no quick way to get back to the road we want except to backtrack all the way to Ingenerio Wackwacka. I’m angry! I hate waste – wasting food, wasting money, wasting daylight. I blame Jennifer a little, but she said I’ve been right every time in the past, even when she was sure we were going the wrong way. She doesn’t want to challenge or correct me, but I tell her that she has the map, so she’s responsible. Then again, I never did look at the map, so I’m angry at myself, too.
We made it back to Ingenerio Wackwacka in twenty minutes – who knew a four speed Land Cruiser with a 2F straight six engine could go so fast without tipping over or blowing up? Tougher than nails, tougher than Jake!
Finally going the right direction, we arrived in Camargo after dark for dinner. We had chicken for the fortieth time in a row, under a low canopy of wine grapes on which I smacked my head upon entering. Twenty Bolivian dudes in blue coveralls sitting at three tables placed end to end were already eating their chicken when we entered. Michael overheard them talking as we waited for our food. Seems my beard made a big impression, because twenty bald faced guys began to debate who among them could grow a beard the biggest or fastest. I’m just here to change Bolivia, one beard at a time.
The road out of Camargo was different: no longer asphalt, but cement with seams about the same distance apart as the wheels on my rig, so that we broncoed our way through the night. There were no more lane lines on the road, no km signs, no distance to go signs, not even that many trucks. Jennifer was nervous, worried about being wrong, worried that I’d blame her again, that we’re going the wrong direction. We stop, and sometimes, even back up so I can aim my headlights at signs with worthless information: “town not listed on your map with 7 residents, 4 km ahead.” Jennifer suggested that maybe next time, instead of passing one of those big lumbering trucks, we pull alongside and shout questions about their destination – “Are you going to Tarija?”
After a couple hours of uncertainty and fear, we pass a sign that indicates a city we have on our map – Villa Abecia. Woo whoo! Confident once again that we are on the correct road, we drove through the night south toward Tarija, even making the turn at El Puente without incident.
Entering Tarija at about 11:30pm, we saw a police check point set up in the road ahead. It seemed that some of the cars ahead were able to slow way down, flash their licenses and keep on driving. I tried the same tactic, but it may have backfired. I slowly rolled past the officer, and when he was abreast my rear tire, he barked “Stop!” In the dim light, I looked at Jennifer and saw a worried look flicker across her face.
“License!” ordered the officer. He was young. The kids scare me the most. They think they still have something to prove, I guess. I pulled my expired license out of my wallet. Jennifer tried the fast talking technique again, but he shushed her. He looked at my license. His eyes widened. He put his finger on the expiration date and turned and lifted my license so that I could see what he was pointing at. “This license is expired!” He was incredulous. “What are you doing driving with an expired license?”
It was my turn to talk fast. I told him that yes, I knew, I was in the process of renewing, but as he surely knew, a person could not begin the renewal process until after it had expired, and I had to travel for the race, but I would get my license as soon as I returned to Cochabamba. He listened, but he was obviously annoyed.
“You need to get your license renewed!” he said – and waved us on. Whew! Be still my heart! Jennifer and I sang our new song again, and I promptly took a wrong turn. I crossed the bridge, turned back around and the police prepared to stop us again. Ohmygoodness! Then they recognized the bike on the front, the scary hairy gringo freak behind the wheel, and just waved us through. We sang our song.
We made it to the hotel just before midnight on Friday. This was the second hotel the boys had ever seen, and they were manic with excitement. Joel gestured and shouted and danced around in a big circle, excited about the size of the bathroom. Michael grabbed my hand and dragged me farther into the room to show me the big flat screen TV. “Wow,” I said and removed the cable between the TV and receiver. Samuel said that his bed, being an extra brought into the room, was actually a converted bookcase. “That’s wonderful. Ok, everybody to bed, it is time to sleep!”
Tarija is 6,200 feet above sea level, but that’s lower than Cochabamba’s 8,700 feet, so I expected the air to be thick and juicy and my race times to improve as a result. Over the same distance, I reduced my time from 56 minutes to 46 minutes. I was happy with my performance, although the air still felt thin. My swim time was significantly better – being in open water rather than a 25m pool – I do not know how to flip-turn. I forgot to check the seat height of my bike before the race, so it was too low and I had to stop to adjust it during the ride. My front tire also crossed the line into the transition zone before the run, so I was penalized 15 seconds. Overall, in a national level competition, I placed 5th out of 8 in my age group. I was only about two minutes behind third place, though, so I am motivated to keep training, and I hope to do better in the next races.
Entertaining Sophia during the race
The boys said she was cheering for Daddy!
The return trip was almost entirely in daylight, and over roads that were now almost familiar, so we didn’t expect much more adventure. After filling up with gas upon leaving Tarija, however, the car started to sputter. Going up the hills, it would lurch, almost die, but then keep running. It got bad enough that Jennifer noticed. I was feeling nervous. Middle of nowhere, not much traffic on a Sunday afternoon, how do you fix a fuel source problem? I did stop to look under the hood, and I saw the fuel filter had been dislodged from its clip by the chubby thief, pinching the fuel hose a little bit. I reinserted the filter into its right place, and that seemed to help for a while, but it was only after we had burned through all that fuel that Lucy started to purr again. Tougher than nails, tougher than Bolivia!
I had been making good time all the way from Tarija to Potosí and was still going fast on the twisty roads between Potosí and Sucre. My speedometer doesn’t work, so I was calculating our speed based on the time it took to go 10 km, and then estimating how much longer it would take to reach our destination. I figured we could make it to Sucre right around sunset and was feeling pretty happy about it when all that changed.
“I’m going to be sick!” shouted Michael from the back. The kids had been watching a movie on the little DVD player we bought for just this sort of trip – max one flick per leg of the journey. They had felt sick before, but it never transitioned from discomfort to action, so as I scanned the shoulderless highway for a spot to pull over, I wondered if this was a repeat.
“Blaaarrrrrpppppp!” We’ve got action, folks. Crackers and apples came back up in a rush, splattering shoes and stuffed animals, books, DVD’s, the seat and the floor. Then I stopped the car. Eruption number two was burbling to the surface, and the other two boys just sat and stared with mouths agape. “Well, open the door and get out of the car,” I barked.
The boys sprang to action then, scrambling to get the door open and out of the way of the next wave. We managed to get that one outside, just beyond the step. For the next twenty minutes, we emptied the back of the car and wiped down anything that had been nastified with napkins or baby wipes. The objects strewn behind the car looked like the wreckage of a crashed plane. We weren’t going to make Sucre by sunset. “No more movies in the car for a while, guys,” I said. There was no protest.
Having parked Lucy in the safety of a garage overnight in Sucre, we were back on the road to Cochabamba early in the morning without incident. That “blockade” in Aiquile? Turns out they were getting ready to pave the road. In the daylight, the detour route was obvious, but it was still fun to have driven on the sidewalk.
Even in the daylight, however, the speed bumps made of dirt blended in well with the road made of dirt. I almost slowed enough for most of them, did a four wheel skid to make it in time for another, and never saw the last one coming – I bet I was doing 40 mph. I think I got all four wheels in the air. No blood, no broken bones, but there was a funny rattling/clanking sound under the hood when I turned the steering wheel after that.
I thought these Land Cruisers were supposed to be bullet proof. Am I tougher on a rig than a bullet? I was pretty nervous when I looked around up front, crouching down by the bumper trying to spy something obviously broken. At the same time, I was thankful to God that if something was broken, at least it wasn’t bones. Not seeing anything from the outside, I tried to lift the hood, but it only came part way open. Ah! The rod that holds the hood open had popped out of its clip and was jammed against the steering shaft. I disconnected it from the hood, slid it out of the bind, opened the hood all the way and put the rod back in place. No more rattling/clanking when I turned the wheel – sweet! Tougher than a bullet, tougher than Jake!
Following the cobble stone road from Aiquile back to Cochabamba, we descended to the Mizque River. The day was hot and sunny, and we’d been making good time, so when Jennifer suggested that we stop for a splash, I could only say yes. We crossed the river on the bridge and then drove off the road and into the river valley. The boys and I changed our clothes by the side of the car and walked directly into the water. Not bitterly cold like rivers in Washington, nor warm like a bodily fluid as in Louisiana, not too deep and not too fast - it was perfect! Cooled and energized we returned to the car for the final stretch to Cochabamba and the last police check points.
The mountains and valleys about 70 miles outside Cochabamba were some of the most beautiful of the whole trip for me. Each row of hills marching away in the distance was a deeper blue than the one before it. Small square fields with lines of cultivation rested on the flat spots and solitary mud brick houses perched as sentries. I pulled over to stop the car many times, trying to capture the tranquility with my camera. I sighed many times in appreciation of the views, and Jennifer reminded me that we were in the Cochabamba department.
The sun was setting in my eyes for the second to last hour of the drive westward into the city. As darkness fell, we came upon our last police check point. I thought I might scoot through with the three other cars in front of me, but since I wasn’t tailgating, they flagged me down in the interval. When the officer asked to see my license, I opened my wallet and held it up, my license visible through the clear plastic. I could tell the officer wasn’t satisfied, but he didn’t want the bother of the extra time it would take to remove the license either. He hesitated, scowled at me, and waved me on.
Jennifer was so proud of me. “Now you’re driving like a real Bolivian,” she beamed. And I was so proud of her! She supported me in this adventure with trust and excitement. She was as pleasant a traveling companion as a guy could ask for, and she's even excited to do it again! I love her so much!
We pulled into our garage at 7:30 pm that night. No “refrescos,” no fines, no damage to car or person, a successful race, beautiful views outside the cities, fun roads – let’s do it again!