ATV Adventure Tour: Bolivia Chiquitania

June 12, 2013
By Mike Calabro
“I got robbed, mugged, and drugged and all you get is this lousy story”

I had my thumb slammed all the way down on the throttle to pass the other 65 ATVs ahead of me. It’s not that I’m slow; I just stop a lot to take killer photos and then have to get back in front of the pack. As I ripped around a right-hand blind corner on my squirrelly hand-me-down Honda Rancher, I suddenly got slammed off my bike. I was doing nearly 40 mph on a loose, potholed, gravel-encrusted road. As I hit the rocky earth I felt something weird. It wasn’t the heavy weight of a four-wheel-drive beast pummeling me, it was some native dude. He must have leapt out of the bushes and tackled me off my quad like a pro quarterback would do to a bratty 12-year-old kid. I got the wind knocked out of me and wasn’t able to catch the quad thief as he drove away with my only means of transportation.

I immediately panicked and thought that I would be stuck in Bolivia forever. Luckily, the thief sucked at riding and smashed my bike into a three-foot-deep trench and rolled the quad. He got up, wiped the gushing blood from his forehead, and ran off into the woods. At least I got my quad back, but now I was stuck there with an overturned four-wheeler that, even with my colossal arms, I could not upright by myself. Luck was with me that day, though, because two other riders in the caravan showed up to help me get the ATV out of the Copper Canyon-sized trench. They were in complete amazement when I told them what happened. That night at the campsite I had to tell everyone the story because they wanted to know how I bent the wheel on my quad. As far as you know, this story is 100% true and I am sticking with it.

The next day, someone stole my quad again! They broke the steering linkage this time. My bent wheel and linkage was replaced later that night. The only problem is that they only had a 27-inch wheel and my quad needed a 25er. So, I had an extra-large tire on the front right. After trying to ride that for a day, I begged for a better vehicle. They were nervous to give me another quad in fear that a robber would come after me again.

How did I end up riding in Bolivia and fighting off all these robbers? At the behest of Juan Carlos and his son Chavo, the top Moto-X rider in the country, who sent an invitation to join the Caravana (or Caravan in English) and tour the old Jesuit missions in the eastern interior of Bolivia – a region dubbed La Gran Chiquitania. Organizers invited media from all over the world to experience this nine-day adventure through Bolivia and part of Brazil. Everyone rides fast and hard, and there are a lot of miles (the Bolivians call them “kilometrs”) to ride every day. This would be a true adventure trip.

The Jesuit missions of Chiquitania were settled starting in the late 17th century. Many have fallen into disrepair, but in the late 1970s renovation work began and now six of the old missions are designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. For my immediate travel purposes, the beautiful missions of The Jesuit Mission Circuit served as the planned itinerary for our Bolivian ATV adventure.

The life of an ATV photographer may not be glamorous  but it does have its perks...
The life of an ATV photographer may not be glamorous, but sometimes it has its perks…

The life of an ATV photographer is not as glamorous as it seems. I have to sit next to crying babies during international flights, risk broken bones from riding foreign quads, eat scary food, and ride all day. I get up before sunrise to check out good spots to shoot and don’t stop shooting until after sunset. When everyone else is done for the day and kicking back with some local barley pop, I am in my tent cranking through photos and making notes. I quit. That’s right. I promise to quit…unless some of you send some letters of appreciation.

I met up with Juan and Chavo after a long, long flight from Chicago (with about 14 layovers in between). The first quad they gave me stalled out in the first half hour. My replacement quad was a Honda Rancher with worn-out suspension…and by now you know how that worked out for me. Driving it at 80 mph, I mean kmph, on the “highways” (long rocky, dirt roads with gargantuan potholes) was sketchy at best.

When I embarked on this trip, all I knew about Bolivia was that it’s home to Lake Titicaca. No one told me about all those damn thieves, though. We camped two of the nights on the trip and stayed in hotels the rest. Some of the hotels were big, classy, and beautiful (so I didn’t really fit in there), but lots of them were in very old towns and were run down. Some didn’t even have water. I travel a lot and often it does not feel like I am in a foreign country. But this place sure felt foreign.

The caravan medic decided to mainline a foreign substance into Calabros vein after he spent the day bowled over by a mystery disease.
Just what the doctor ordered… Uh, what exactly did he order?

The first day was rough on account of all the big linebackers that were jumping out of the forest to snatch my ride. The second day I got really sick. I could not stop puking. My stomach wanted to escape from my body. I was ailing with a gnarly cough, dizziness, and lots of vomiting. It’s hard to ride a quad when you are doing all of those things at once. The pickup crew (a pickup truck that followed the pack of riders to pick up the stragglers) saw me at my worst. The bastards saw me puking and took a bunch of photos. They were lucky that I am a nice guy or I would have kicked all of their butts (or at least got one of those linebacker thieves to do it).

That night, everyone seemed a bit worried about me. The caravan medic decided it would be best to mainline a foreign substance into my vein. He took the medicine out of a small brown glass bottle that had no cap on it. He had to break the top of the glass to get to the mystery juice. He sucked it out with a needle (a clean one, I hope) and slammed it into my arm. I was so sick, I couldn’t object. I asked what the medicine was, but none knew how to translate the name of it for me. I also asked what was wrong with me and got another answer in Spanish: fear. Apparently it was really because I did everything that a tourist to a foreign country shouldn’t do. I stopped taking my Malaria Pills after two days. I waded in swamps, I got way too close to dangerous wildlife, I swam in lakes infested with gators, I ate unpeeled fruit and drank tap water mixed with juice. No wonder I had some weird Bolivian disease. I thought that if I ignored it, it would go away eventually. With all of my traveling, I have decided that I soon will be immune to everything. My goal is to collect every disease by the end of the year, and then I will have super immunity (or be dead).

The next morning I felt better, which meant I wasn’t dead (hooray!). I survived the illness and whatever was in that open vial. I was glad to be able to ride without yakking, because I really wanted to be on my toes in case another one of those shady, huge guys jumped out at me again. Most of the riding we did was through the Pantanal, which is the world’s largest wetland area. It’s mostly flat with lots of rivers (hence the wetland part). The region’s name comes from the

Riders on the ATV tour proceeded with caution after a large group of caiman were spotted in the water.
Riders on the ATV tour proceeded with caution after a large group of caiman were spotted in the water.

Portuguese word “pântano,” which means “swamp” or “marsh.” Most of Pantanal lies within the Brazilian states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul. There are also small portions in Bolivia and Paraguay. The Pantanal covers about 150,000 square kilometers (58,000 square miles) and goes through lots of swampland called Curichis.

Since the area hadn’t had much rainfall, only a few people got stuck in the muck and needed to be pulled out. After riding through the Curichis for miles, Chavo and I took a break at a clearing. As we ate a snack, Chavo told me this area was home to hundreds of different plants, birds, fish, mammals, and 80 species of reptiles including the caiman, which is closely related to the alligator. Just then we saw a bunch of floating logs rolling down the river. They were everywhere. Upon closer inspection I found out that they were caimans… big ones. I have never seen so many gators at one time. I got a big lump in my throat (which could’ve been from my trailmix bar) when I thought about how I had been carelessly running around in the swamp taking photos all day. We kept on riding, and my new knowledge of hungry reptiles all around me stuck in the front of my brain for the rest of the day.

We rode our way out of the swampland, which was okay with me, as we got back into a more caiman-free part of the region. Between the long highways and curichis, we passed through many small pueblos. Whenever we drove through a new pueblo the entire town celebrated. They loved us. Each town had a bunch of kids dressed up in traditional gear who did some cool dances for us. It was kind of like line dancing, but better. They also had live bands playing for us. Juan Carlos and others brought medical supplies to many of the towns that have no access to anything. It was nice to see that these ATV riders were also doing something good for others. Things refused to improve much for me, though.

Calabro got held up by this eight-year old kid  so he gave him his lunch and was allowed to pass.

The next thing I knew, I was getting held up by an eight-year-old kid. He was walking around with a large rifle, so I gave him my lunch before I became target practice. His family came out of the brush and happily ate my lunch. The kid was stoked and let me take photos of him. That evening I was nicknamed Acid Mike because everything I touched somehow got destroyed. I feel that assessment was a little unfair, and I told the group I wanted to see the mountains and Lake Titicaca. I promised them nothing there would fall apart, get stolen, or be destroyed. I mean, how can I destroy a mountain or how can someone steal a lake? The group decided I couldn’t do much more damage to myself, so they agreed to take me there. The ride was mainly in swamps and Amazon-like areas. To shut me up, they invited me to come back in October to ride up the most dangerous road in the world, to top out at 19,000 feet, and to stay in a hotel made completely of salt at the world’s largest salt flats. Even though I’m Acid Mike, these people liked me.

After nine days of riding, Chavo and his fiancé took me to her dad’s weekend house near these huge sand dunes. The sand was super light and soft and every turn whipped sand into the sky. We rode to the top of the highest dune and then I stopped dead in my tracks. It was incredible. The Amazon was in full view – thick, thick trees as far as I could see. The sand dunes were right up on the edge of the jungle, slowly swallowing the trees in its way. It was absolutely stunning and the perfect way to end my trip to Bolivia.

It was the most challenging quad trip I’ve been on, both mentally and physically. There was a language barrier, long rides, and people tackling me and flipping my quad over. Having to ride with the throttle hammered most of the way on sketchy roads and having to deal with all of the mini-epics put a serious strain on me. Looking back on the experience, I had the time of my life. Sure, I might have caught some rare debilitating Bolivian disease that will leave me scarred for life, but that’s what adventures are for.

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