Two weeks tops, blast through Bolivia and on to Patagonia for some serious trout fishing and alpine adventure. But, Bolivia had other plans for us, and once she had us in her embrace we found ourselves having to claw our way out six weeks later. Our last day, with sights set on Chile, we found ourselves lost in the wilderness, fixing a flat tire as the sun set, and arriving after dark to a remote frontier border crossing that had already closed for the day. We wild camped off the side of the dirt track with both bikes stuck in deep sand as we waited through the night for the border to open in the morning. Bolivia became family to us and like it or not, family attaches to the soul.
The first sign we were no longer in Peru were the drivers. Bolivian drivers lack the suicide gene common in Peru and we were able to ride without the “death race 2000” mentality we had grown accustomed to in Peru. We left Lake Titicaca behind for La Paz, Cochabamba, and Sucre as we made our way to the Salar de Uyuni in southern Bolivia. After three nights in Sucre we loaded the bikes for an early start, paid our hotel bill, and hopped onto our bikes. Shannon’s bike refused to start. It refused to even stutter or backfire so we moved back into the room we had vacated a half hour earlier and our residence status in Sucre began.
Fuel/air, spark, and compression; the holy trinity of internal combustion engines and all were suspect at this point. The tools came out and Shannon’s bike Zippy was disassembled piece by piece. Mike’s bike, the Black Donkey, became the test platform as components like the carburetor, CDI, ignition coils, switches, and relays were moved over and tested. If the Donkey ran with a Zippy part that part was deemed “not the problem”. On the third day of trouble shooting a smoking gun was found. A small electrical device called a pulse coil, a component of the stator assembly, which lives in a sea of motor oil in permanent darkness inside the engine, tested bad with the OHM meter. The pulse coil’s sole job is to tell the bikes computer when to spark; without a working pulse coil Zippy would never run again.
Suzuki Bolivia in La Paz could get an entire stator assembly (which includes the itty-bitty pulse coil) in as little as 60-days and for a mere US$650. The pulse coil alone is not available from Suzuki. Not good. Another couple of days scouring the internet and asking contacts on social media we had our answer, a Suzuki DR650 pulse coil was made of unobtainium in Bolivia and could not be had for any price. The pulse coil via DHL from the US took two weeks, favors from many friends, some helpful strangers along the way, and an overnight bus ride to finaly receive our new part in Sucre, Bolivia.
While we waited for our parts to arrive both bikes got new chains and sprockets and the Black Donkey got some new tires as well. We made friends in Sucre and were invited to the home of a Bolivian motorcycle mechanic I had befriended in my mission to get Zippy running. We slept late, ate good, and read a lot of books. We became the resident expats of the hotel and were the unofficial greeters to the guests that arrived each day. Shannon went native and shopped in the market like all the other Bolivian women and soon found a favorite baker, produce seller, butcher, and egg wholesaler.
Finally one bright Spring morning our DHL package arrived. After the high fives and happy dances I opened up the left side of the engine, cut out the bad pulse coil, and soldered in the new part, green wire to green wire and blue wire to blue wire just like the dealer in the US insisted the part be installed.
Giddy with anticipation we all gathered around Zippy to see her roar to life. Nothing, no change, no start, same shit as before. My confidence as a mechanic was shaken. Had I not diagnosed the problem correctly and because of my mistake waited two weeks for a part that didn’t fix the problem? Ouch.
Now the real work began. I knew I had a weak, mistimed spark so therefore the problem was rooted in the electrical arena. For the next week I cleaned every connection, verified every circuit, inspected every wire, fixed small wiring issues that were done incorrectly at the Suzuki factory, rebuilt portions of the wire harness, and moved almost every electrical component off my working bike over to Zippy. And, still no dice. I was desperate. And, the only thing left to try was to open up my working bike and move over the entire stator assembly. This final solution would entail a complete swap off all electrical components from one bike to the other. I was not looking forward to this.
On the day this invasive procedure was to commence I tried one last test at Shannon’s insistence. I switched the blue and green wires from the new pulse coil and reconnected them green to blue and blue to green. I had been emphatically told not to do this by a Suzuki professional and was told multiple times the problem must lie elsewhere in the ignition system. After swapping the wires I hit the starter button and Zippy fired once, backfired, and quit. This is more than I had seen in three weeks so I rushed to put the fuel tank back on and fill the carburetor with fresh gas. The second attempt, now with fuel, and Zippy roared to life. The patient had recovered after a month of hopelessness.
We finally made it to the Salt Flats of Uyuni and made real the dream of camping in the vast wilderness in an endless sea of white salt.
Bolivia grew on us and we are glad to have gotten to know this place on an intimate level. It is now time to make up lost days if we are to make Ushuaia on schedule. Moving again under our own steam has given us both renewed energy and the joy of riding our motorcycles has returned ten-fold after being broke down in Bolivia.