Small, mostly indigenous and sparsely populated, Bolivia is a bit of a challenge for Westerners when it comes to traffic. While the main roads are paved and well-maintained, most of the southern routes are either sandy dirt trails or generously potholed two-lane roads leading across the mountain plateaus. Riding motorcycles in Bolivia, be aware of chaotic traffic, creative drivers, and various interpretations of road signs and traffic lights: out here, it’s about being alert and going with the flow. Adventurous tuktuk drivers may try to overtake you while jumping a red light, while truckers may not want to share their lane; however, after a day or two, you’ll be riding like a local and enjoying the colourful chaos around you.
What Bolivia lacks in traffic conditions, it more than makes up for in scenery, culture, and motorcycling roads. On or off the road, Bolivia offers stunning views of the Andes, the high deserts, and the salt flats. Riding here, you’ll discover ruins of ancient cultures, local indigenous communities, and charming colonial towns; and when you venture South, you’ll feel like a nineteenth-century explorer let loose in a remote land rather than a modern traveller on a touristy ride.
The best time of year to ride Bolivia is May through to September. This is Bolivian winter, and the weather stays mild and dry. Generally, the rainy season is rarely an issue, except around the Uyuni Salt Flats area where the roads become barely passable with mud. We recommend packing a few warmer base layers as the temperatures at high altitude tend to get chillier.
Salt Flats of Uyuni is the largest salt desert in the world, so vast it’s visible from space. Stretching for four thousand square miles, this otherworldly salt flat is often called Salar Celeste – the Heavenly Desert – by the locals. That’s because during the rainy season, when the expanse is flooded, the salt flats reflect the sky so perfectly it looks like a real-life optical illusion and you’re quite literally walking on the sky. Riding a motorcycle on the Salt Flats of Uyuni feels like racing on the surface of the Moon: with nothing to distinguish where the horizon ends and the sky begins, it’s a surreal experience impossible to repeat anywhere else in the world.
Easily one of the most infamous motorcycling roads on the planet, the Death Road is a narrow mountain trail connecting capital La Paz with the rainforest lowlands. Named Camino del Muerte because of the high fatality rate of drivers negotiating its steep turns and switchbacks with nothing but jungle vegetation to protect from a fall, this eighty-kilometre trail is now a popular destination for mountain bikers and motorcyclists (and the fatality ate has now dropped significantly as most car and truck drivers choose the new, paved road). Riding the Death Road is an adventure in and of itself: tightly hugging the mountain face with sheer drops on the other side, this road offers some adrenaline-inducing twists and turns, incredible scenery, and a chance to put your skills to the test.
Bolivia is the only South American country where the indigenous population is the majority. The best way to experience the local culture is visiting the floating islands of Lake Titicaca: a man-made archipelago of tiny reed islands houses a culture older than the Incas who still live on the lake the way their ancestors did thousands of years ago. Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world, and riding around it promises amazing scenery and a unique cultural experience.
Bolivia’s capital city La Paz may appear like a bustling metropolis, but don’t get fooled by its lovely Old Town, fast internet, and great restaurants: this city is home to the Witches’ Market, a place where local witch doctors and shamans trade amulets, medicinal plants, and strange items ranging from dried llama foetuses to alligator teeth. Further South, you’ll hear legends of Pachamama and tales of mountain spirits: in Bolivia, the Catholic tradition hasn’t taken over – it had merely been incorporated into local indigenous beliefs and traditions.
Traveling southward past Uyuni, you’ll enter the Dali desert named after the surrealist painter. There’s a good reason for it: out here, the landscape changes into something only a feverish artist’s imagination could conjure up. A high windswept desert of sand and dirt littered with oddly shaped rock formations and adorned with bright green, red, and white salt lakes where pink flamingos search for nutrients, hot springs bubbling in the cold Andean nights, and erupting geysers, Southern Bolivia looks like it belongs to another planet. Riding here is tough because of the high altitude and dirt roads but it’s an adventure of a lifetime in the truest meaning of the word.