Backtracking to Bolivia

Martin Lobigs
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In October 2007, I started a 4,000-kilometre bicycle trek from Salta, Argentina to Manaus, the metropolis on the Amazon River in Brazil.

I'm now roughly at the halfway point and preparing to leave Puerto Maldonado, a booming town in southeast Peru near the border with Brazil, to head back to Cobija in Bolivia via an illicit trail in narco-country.

New stories from the road - In October 2007, I started a 4,000-kilometre bicycle trek from Salta, Argentina to Manaus, the metropolis on the Amazon River in Brazil.

I'm now roughly at the halfway point and preparing to leave Puerto Maldonado, a booming town in southeast Peru near the border with Brazil, to head back to Cobija in Bolivia via an illicit trail in narco-country.

This bike trip is a continuation of a lifestyle I began in August 1999 when I left St. John's to bike 23,000 kilometres to Argentina and wrote about in "A Life on Wheels - Biking Alone From Newfoundland To Latin America" last year.

Brazil is the only Latin American country I've been in that requires Canadian tourists to buy a visa at an embassy or consulate. All other countries on my route stamped my passport at the border and let me in for free.

The Brazilian policy is understandable, because Canada requires Brazilian visitors to buy a visa before coming to Canada. But interestingly, other Latin American countries - including Argentina, Chile, Peru and Bolivia - whose citizens also have to get a visa to visit Canada, have not responded by implementing similar policies. Perhaps an element of national pride makes the nation of soccer stars, and future superpower (according to the July 8 Financial Times), act differently.

In any case, for me the visa requirement led to trouble and danger.

The two only Brazilian consulates that could have helped me in Peru were about 2,000 km from where I was in Puerto Maldonado. One was in the capital, Lima, and the other in Iquitos in the northern tropics. That was too far, particularly if you consider that only 300 km away in Cobija, in Bolivia - right on the border between Bolivia and Brazil - was a Brazilian consulate that could give me the visa.

But the problem was getting there, because there is no road that crosses the Peru/Bolivia border in this region called Madre de Dios (Mother of God).

The "InteroceÁnico" - the highway tying Peru and Brazil from the Atlantic to the Pacific - will bring you to Cobija, but only after having travelled 130 kilometres through Brazilian territory, which I was not allowed to do without that visa.

I first thought about taking a two-day boat ride down the Rio Madre de Dios to the village Sena in Bolivia and cycling from there to Cobija.

But when a boat would appear in Puerto Maldonado's little harbour was unclear. Also, the boats are cargo ships, where my gear would be exposed to quick hands.

It looked more attractive to pedal back to Cobija via the same trail I had used months earlier in February when I biked from there to Puerto Maldonado. At the time, I was going to Puerto Maldonado to take a break from biking, store my gear in a hotel, take a bus to Cusco and fly to Europe.

Unfortunately, the trail was used by drug traders, and the Peruvian Police and "Migraciones" did not want tourists to go there. In most Latin American countries, the offices of the Migraciones process the legal documentation for the flow of foreigners.

But I thought I had special permission. On my way back from Europe, when I stopped over in Cusco, I looked up the government's tourist support centre PromPeru to get advice on my visa problems. That was when supervisor Karen Nin Monterroso called Ivan Solorio Neyra, the supervisor of Migraciones in Puerto Maldonado, and received his approval that I take the trail back to Bolivia.

Ivan also said that I should first go to IÑapari, the community 240 km north of Puerto Maldonado, where the InteroceÁnico crosses the border to Brazil. There he said I should get an exit stamp at the local Migraciones, and with that stamp I should turn around and cycle the 60 km back to San Lorenzo, the hamlet where the trail starts.

It is essential to have an exit stamp of the country you leave in your passport before you are allowed to enter another country. Ivan said his office in Puerto Maldonado would only issue exit stamps for leaving Peru by boat on the Rio Madre de Dios.

I followed Ivan's instructions as outlined by Karen on signed letterhead that I would be able to show to authorities.

I left Puerto Maldonado June 5. The first 80 km out were gravel, but at Mavila, excellent asphalt started. The hilly road passed green cattle pastures and rainforest. There was less traffic than along the Southern Shore in Newfoundland, and most of it was mopeds. But in three years, the serpentine 400 km between Puerto Maldonado and Cusco (3,600 metres above sea level) will be tarred, and droves of tourists are expected to make the trip between Brazil and Cusco.

I spent the first night in the village Alegria. The headmistress gave me permission to set up my tent in the grassy schoolyard. There I had the rare pleasure of sleeping undisturbed.

Nights are noisy in the tropics, where even the poor are owners of powerful music boxes. With only rags filling the frames of doors and windows, loud music resonates a long way, and not only on weekends. In the tropics, people make use of the cool evenings and mornings. Many people are active past midnight and many more rise as early as 5 a.m.

St. John's is quiet as a morgue in comparison.

My bad fortune was that I grew up where quiet was valued and I am too old to develop the steel ears Latinos have.

As for ear plugs, it's hard to find good ones and they are very costly. In my despair, I wondered if it had been a blessing for Beethoven to have been deaf. It bet it helped him concentrate on his work, sleep well and start each morning with vigour.

The next day, I managed to leave Alegria with vigour and made 120 km of progress, bypassed San Lorenzo and arrived at dusk (around 7 p.m.) at Iberia, a community of 6,000 people which was founded on June 7, 1961 and was celebrating its 47th anniversary with a rock concert and many drunks in its dusty dirt roads.

Not long ago, it flourished on illegal cutting, but now most trees have been hauled away - a process facilitated by the InteroceÁnico, which started to be built here in 2005.

I was lucky to find a friendly doctor in the town's hospital who let me camp on the hospital's little soccer field.

He introduced himself as Gilberto and the handful of nurses said he was their supervisor.

But around 10 p.m., when a supervisor of another shift asked me who had allowed me to put my tent on the hospital's grounds, he said he didn't know anyone by the name of Gilberto. But he laughed and left me in peace.

Martin Lobigs is the author of "A Life on Wheels - Biking Alone from Newfoundland to Latin America," published in 2007 by Creative Book Publishing.

Wednesday: Martin has a run-in with police in Peru.

Organizations: Financial Times, Peruvian Police

Geographic location: Bolivia, Puerto Maldonado, Brazil Peru Cobija Argentina Newfoundland Canada St. John's Latin America Salta Manaus Amazon River Cusco Chile Europe Lima Iquitos Madre de Dios Atlantic Pacific San Lorenzo Southern Shore Iberia

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