In the beginning of September we were in Santa Cruz, located in the eastern part of Bolivia.
After buying a newspaper in one of the many kiosks on the street we read some astonishing
about a road we were planning to ride. In the first eight months of 2002 no less than 98 people died,
and 147 were wounded in 57 accidents on the small jungle road running north from La Paz to Caranavi.
In the months that followed the statistic only became worse. Not without reason tourists call this the
'most dangerous road in the world'. The danger is caused by the width of the road; 4 to 6 meters is not a
lot for a big bus or a truck loaded with people in the back. A steep ravine on the left is a frightening view
for the passengers and on the right side a steep rock face doesn't give any room for a sidestep.
It took several months before we were able to cycle this road ourselves. Actually, it is a popular 1-day
downhill trip organized by several tour agents in La Paz. Tourists are carried by jeep up to La
Cumbre (4725m) to climb on a bicycle and go downhill for over 60 kilometers. After that they get back
in the jeep which takes them the last 7 km uphill to Coroico. So far the tour. Because we don't use jeeps we
climbed on our own overloaded loyal black aluminium horses to La Cumbre. It took us one day to reach the cold rain
clouds on the top where we would spend the night. We didn't notice before the next morning that we had camped on a
beautiful spot, surrounded by steep rock walls and a waterfall. The sky was clear and we could start our descent.
The first part is not dangerous, just a regular road, well..., a pretty beautiful one actually. It's a descent into
the jungle, and jungle in Bolivia stands for coca plantations.
In a fight against the production of cocaine, the
government is trying to avoid
any tools or chemicals necessary for the process coming into the area. We passed a checkpoint in
the morning and with surprise read the sign that listed the prohibited products. We looked at each other:
"Aren't we carrying those things?". In Iris' right front bag was the first banned item, a roll of toilet paper
which is used for filtration by the chemists. In her left bag she had a bottle of cooking fuel: kerosene which
is a rather essential element in the process.
We didn't think that anyone would be bothered by our small amounts, so we continued.
Suddenly we saw the magnificent road appear before us on the opposite mountain slope.
A thin stripe twisted through the green vegetation. On several parts the green is alternated by rocky
gray-brown areas too steep for any vegetation. Already at the beginning of this part of the road we saw
the first memorial stones and crosses. Built for a young Dutch couple and a group of Israelites
who died here not long ago. Quite a contrast when at the same time you see a road that is so magnificent. A great scenery, you
have to ride behind waterfalls which splash their water on the road. On a bicycle it is not particularly scary, since
the road is wide enough for us (a lot broader than an average Dutch bicycle path actually). However, the buses and trucks
just about fit into the lane. We held our breath every time we waited for big vehicles to pass. In the mean time we could
take a look at the wrecks below near the river.
Jungle and butterflies
In the relaxing little touristic village Coroico (1700m) you have a stunning view of the green mountains,
the 'most dangerous road', and of the new road which will replace the old one in a short time. Hopefully
this one will have a different name. From here we decided to descend further up towards the north, first
to Caranavi and the day after to Guanay. But we couldn't reach Guanay in one day; the road wasn't downhill
anymore. Climbing over the hills we left the river Coroico far below us, before reaching it again and starting
another climb. Therefore, we had to spend the night near a creek with a lot of mystical fireflies. Under a shelter
used for banana storage, we found a good place. It was banana and avocado time in the area, so we got them more or
less for free. That evening Tore used the fruits to bake tasty stuffed pancakes. Later we were accompanied by a
father and son going on a nightly hunt in the forest. OK, that is a plausible explanation for the big rifle and dog.
In the morning the lovely fireflies were substituted by very small flying flesh eating creatures. We would still
remember them one week later.
Although a lot of fruits are produced in this area which is called the Yungas, we couldn't really find
any big plantations. You have to look carefully to identify the avocado trees inbetween all the other green
stuff. Nevertheless, we passed a lot of bags filled with avocados and bunches of bananas waiting to be transported
by trucks to La Paz over the most dangerous road. It is all very jungle-like: i.e. hot, sweaty and green, all very
different from the Altiplano. The last two days we were continuously accompanied by a large variety of butterflies
in all sorts, sizes and colours.
Leaving a horde of school kids behind us in the last village and being
loaded with mangos and bananas, a present of one of the kids, we arrived at the junction of four rivers,
some which were muddy others perfectly clear. The mud is caused by the gold mining activities in the surroundings.
Actually, the whole area is dominated by gold, as we noticed for the first time in goldmine village Guanay.
'We buy gold' signs and pairs of scales are to be seen everywhere. Besides gold, this village bursts of mangos,
both on the market and in the mango trees. Strange, because until the previous village we had seen hardly any mangos.
These mangos are hairy but still taste very good. The water streams fast in the Rio Consata, a real big volume river
that runs next to the village. We felt its strength when we took a swim: jump in upstream and try to get out of it 100
meters lower. Although there is supposed to be a road or path from Guanay to the northwest village Mapiri, we thought
it better to take a little boat upstream like all the locals do.
A small boat with about 20 other passengers and two big engines, necessary to conquer the river.
Our bicycles lay crosswise in the front. There were gold miners all along the river, sifting the sand
from the river bank in a search for gold. In our boat were gold miners too, carrying an inflated inner tube.
They jumped ashore somewhere in the bush-bush to go back to work. A few days later they would use their own means
of transportation to float back to Guanay.
We reached Mapiri at 933m altitude and from there it would be a very difficult task to
get back to the Altiplano. Not only because of the difference in altitude but especially because
of the state of the road. To give you an idea, the locals prefer to get to the Altiplano via the way we
came instead of the way in front us, which might be half of the distance. In our way up we passed two girls
with gold pans on the back. They claimed to find about half a gram of gold a day. A different number than the
80 kg the French company will find in the future with its big machines. Due to the bad road we walked about half
of the distance. When we asked a woman how long it takes for them to get back to Mapiri she replied "Well,
on inner tube it's about 20 minutes, men walk it in an hour and women need about one and an half hour." We were
just resting after struggling for 2 hour.
Near Mapiri a new bridge is being built over a big branch of the Consata river. Still not finished.
Instead we had to take the old, very old, suspension bridge. Locals explained to us that it is best to
take be careful and cross the 20 meters one by one. Many planks are missing or they are loose and slipping
to and fro as soon as you point your foot to it. Not an easy task to reach the other side with 50 kg on wheels
next to you on a shaking underground. We forgot about the one by one rule and helped each other get the bike over
the gaping holes. A family crossed the bridge after us, looking seriously frightened.
Is was hot, very hot. The sun was standing at the highest point in the sky, our
shadows straight below us. It was too hot for all the climbing. Heat interchanged with a shivering cold:
sun stroke. Fortunately, we reached a little village with plenty of shadow, refreshing jugos and enough soup
to restore the salt balance.
The first village we passed after our boat trip was Santa Rosa. This is a typical gold miners village.
All houses are made of wood on the single sandy street. The miners can spend their money in the blue and
green illuminated clubs with the first woman they see sitting invitingly in front of it. In almost every shop
you can sell your gold for a bit less than 10 US$ per gram. At any time we expected to find a saloon with Jolly
Jumper waiting beside the window. There was quite a lot of noise in the small village, mainly generated by the big
loudspeakers. On one side of our hostel (with swimming pool) was the telephone centre. Every 15 minutes a woman's
voice echoed through the houses asking for a certain person to get to the centre: "there's a phone call for Seņor Gonzales".
On the other side was the town hall, where they asked every now and then for certain people to show up. What other way is
there then to yell this through the streets.
We kept climbing and pushing up. We found a little house where we could
drink a 'refresco': boiled fruits, cinnamon, baileys, sugar... Two men were also sitting there for a rest. After a chat we understood
that they worked in a little gold mine. "Can we have a look?", we asked. "Sure," one of them answered and we followed
them. However, suddenly they disappeared in a tunnel. So dark and muddy that we couldn't find them. After 5 minutes a
young man, bare-chested and well muscled came out of the black hole. Judging the sweat it was a hard job pushing the cart
filled with sand through the mud. We were excited when he offered to show us how to find gold. First the big stones are
filtered out and then the sand is made very wet. The dirt is put in the cone shaped pan, and then you rotate the pan so that
the light particles spin out. In this way Tore found two tiny shiny flakes of gold.
The road is in an exceeding poor state. In the nights there was heavy rainfall.
Muddy brown puddles as wide as the road; always a surprise how deep they are. Steep stony parts interchanged
with sticky mud. Not a road to make a lot of distance, 20 km per day on average. Also not a road for a lot of
traffic, about 2 cars pass us each day. Not much space to pitch the tent either. Something we don't normally do,
but had to do this time, is put the tent one meter from the road.
'Tourists die here'
Another river branch, however no bridge in whatever form to be seen. It was about 8:30 in the morning and
a man was sitting next to the road at the point where it disappears into the water. He told us that it's
impossible to cross the river at this moment, because of the heavy rainfall in the night the river was unusually high.
When he had arrived at 7:00 the water came to his chest, now at pelvis level and he expected it to be low enough at 10:00
for him and us to cross. We didn't completely believe him because the river didn't seem that violent. Besides, we didn't feel
like waiting another one and an half hour. Just a couple of meters was nevertheless enough to feel the extreme strength of the
stream. We waited, tried several times, but were indeed not able to cross before ten o'clock. Iris reached the other side
after some freighting moments (maybe it wasn't such a good idea to use a fishing line as the safety cord). Tore went back and
forth ten times to carry all the luggage to the other side.
In Consata we stayed in an old hotel ran by a retired police officer. He
bothered us with his stories about his professional past. "I executed the woman with one shot through the head.
She shouldn't have tried to steal from the market. That's the same way the Incas dealt with such problems." When we
asked him if many tourists pass his hotel. "Well yes, in the past many, but nowadays not anymore." "Why not?" we asked
anxious. "They are all dead, you see... All killed." Needless visualizing it with a sharp straight move of his finger along
his throat. Right, so that's what happens with tourists in this area.
From Consata it's uphill. Rivers very far below us reflecting the sun. In the distance small villages, not down in
the valley but situated on the top of the mountains, the only places where it is more or less flat. We were coming
into a special area now. After two days we reached a village, with no hospedaje. In general this is no problem in Bolivia,
within 5 minutes we had a place to stay. We asked around, a man shouted through the streets who wanted us in their house.
No problem said the nearest woman who was working in her garden. So, another night in someone's house...
As said before, we entered a beautiful area. Little farms, characteristic Bolivians keeping a watch over their sheep
(with slingshots), many farmers working on their little pieces of land, great colours of brown sand and green vegetation.
Only, the road made strange detours to get through the erratic valleys. At a certain point we were quite close to another
mountain that we had been travelling on one and a half day ago.
Although we were not very far from a touristic place called Sorata, the tourists apparently (and not surprisingly)
don't reach this village via this road. When we showed up along a curve, children walking from school started to see us,
panic in their eyes. Most of them started to run away. Some climbed in the trees, others literally jumped down into a ravine
when Tore passed by. A couple of moments later they climbed up again, relieved, looking how Tore disappeared in the distance.
Satisfied they evaluated: "We did well, didn't we? He just couldn't get at us!" And at that moment they got track of
Iris riding downhill towards them. Another horrified look and another jump into the ravine followed.
Sorata, touristic, good to stay at for a couple of days. We enjoyed resting,
reading National Geographics, eating pizza and stuffed pancakes, something else than the everlasting rice,
fried potatoes and fried eggs you are served in the Bolivian villages. It still took us two days to reach the Lago
Titicaca, and another day to Copacabana, our last destiny in Bolivia.
See also the map and more info of this area.
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This page was last updated on Friday July 29, 2011