The Journal  

4 February 2006

La Paz

Author: Jeremiah

Photographer: Holly


The Guzzi Gets Altitude Sickness: La Paz , Bolivia

January 20-22

I knew I was in trouble when the police “jefe” walked into the office and closed the door behind me. My papers weren't in order he told me. It was going to be a lot of trouble for him to work out the problems and I was going to have to pay a $20 “fee” to solve the problem or I was going be stuck on the border between Peru and Bolivia . Two months ago, I probably would have paid what they asked and been on my way, but I knew there were no charges to enter or exit Peru and that my papers were in order. I pushed my way out of the office and walked back to the customs office where I had just filled out the paperwork so that our motorcycle could leave the country. The officer there confirmed there were no fees and lowered the chain so that Holly and I could pass over the border, the Peruvian policemen standing in the background with their arms folded across their chests.


At 8:00 a.m. the Peruvian border opened for crossing and police raised the nation's flag.

From Puno to La Paz , Bolivia there are two routes, a shorter, faster one and a slower, more scenic route. Since it was Holly's birthday, I let her choose. She went with scenic.

Leaving Puno at daylight, the road followed the edge of the lake before heading back into the altiplano. The road was devoid of towns and we stopped at a small roadside restaurant where we were refueled from a five gallon bucket.


The scenic route curved around the southern part of the lake where fishing boats were tied and Peruvians were moving their cattle and sheep herds from pasture to pasture.

We arrived at the border station at Yunguyo a few minutes before it opened at 8 a.m., slipping through customs and immigrations, the police snag adding only a few minutes before we made it across the border. On the Bolivian side things went even easier and we paused to chat for a few minutes with an Argentinean rider who was returning from Peru on his Honda XR200.


At the Bolivian border an Argentinean rider stopped to chat and take a photo beside the Guzzi. He had made the trek from northern Argentina to Machu Picchu and back.

From the border the road passes through the resort town of Copacabana . The map then shows it running to the edge of the lake, stopping, and then starting up again on the other side. We assumed there was a ferry. The road ends in a small town called San Pablo de Tiquina and there is a boat service that takes vehicles across the lake to the sister town of San Pedro de Tiuquina. At the docks, the small launches could hold only one car or bus at a time, with a line of vehicles already formed waiting to cross. But the ferry operators saw our motorcycle and motioned us to the front of the line to put us on a launch with a tour bus. The deck of the boat I road the motorcycle onto was composed of rough boards with just enough space between them to fit the Guzzi's narrow front tire. I sttod by the b bike, bracing it during the entire voyage, meticulously maneuvering it back around to ride off the boat and over the foot of space that separated it from the dock.


Each ferry carried one car or bus or truck across at a time. We were shuttled on with a small tour bus to the other side of the lake.

The Bolivian countryside changed little from Peru and in an hour we were on the outskirts of La Paz . As we entered the city, we picked up the expressway that leads downtown and promptly rode into a traffic jam. With other drivers urging us to lane split onto an exit ramp, we did. Bad mistake. The exit dumped us into a mid-afternoon urban Bolivian traffic nightmare of washed out streets full of potholes and standing water and filled with buses. For the next two hours we wandered, traffic rarely moving faster than a crawl, with no one seeming able to tell us how to get back on the highway.

In altitudes above 10,000 feet that we had encountered in both Central and South America , I noticed that when I stopped after traveling, the motorcycle wouldn't idle. Because the Guzzi ran fine under throttle on the road, I dismissed the problems as being the result of the colder temperatures.

But sitting in Bolivian traffic at well over 10,000 feet, I realized there was a bigger problem. The motorcycle stuttered and stalled as I slipped the clutch and tried to ease my way through the lines of buses, eventually loosing power and refusing to start. I eased it off to the side of the road to take a look. When I pulled the sparkplugs they were fouled and smelled like gasoline. A crowd was forming as I replaced them with an extra set. The motorcycle started with a cloud of black smoke, spitting and sputtering as I pulled away. Police officers motioned us back to the expressway and we limped into downtown La Paz finding our hotel near the central plaza.


Jeremiah pulled the Guzzi off the street to see what the problem was with the fuel injection. A crowd of Bolivians gathered to watch.

All of this occurred on January 20th, Holly's 25th birthday. I parked the Guzzi in the hotel lobby, and decided to deal with the problems the next day and took Holly downtown to dinner at a restaurant on the 12th floor of a hotel.


La Paz , Bolivia , the highest capital in the world at 12,078 feet.


I celebrated my 25th birthday in La Paz . Photo by Jeremiah.


Banners hung around La Paz commemorating the Argentina-born Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara.

The next morning I made an international call for help to Shelby Canard of Union Cycles, a Moto Guzzi dealership in North Carolina . Shelby told me one of the sensors in the Guzzi's injection system could have gone bad, but this was rarely a problem. When he asked how high we were I told him nearly 14,000 feet. “They don't have altitudes that high in Italy ,” he replied. “The injection probably hasn't been tested or programmed for that altitude.”

I spent our Saturday in La Paz going over the Guzzi, cleaning the spark plugs and checking the wiring harness for shorts. I couldn't find a multi-meter to check the sensors, which didn't matter anyway because the closest Moto Guzzi dealership was in Buenos Aires . The hotel owners allowed me to work on the bike in their lobby, fortunately because it was pouring rain outside. Finding no apparent problems, I cleaned the spark plugs and air filter and reassembled the bike, hoping for the best.


All photographs © Holly Marcus / Page design by Robin Marcus