Bolivia 2008

Bolivia-Travelogue  |  Travel time: November 2008  |  by Oliver Schuetz

Coroico - Nov 22-24

Only 56 km separate La Paz from Coroico in linear distance, but worlds lie in between. To exit La Paz towards the North, you have to cross "La Cumbre" mountain (4600m), from where the Yungas road descends down to only 1300m. The old road, until 2006 the only one, was essentially an unpaved single-lane road, but used by heavy traffic in both directions, where two vehicles hardly could pass, as the average width is about 3 meters. At some places near the road it goes 600 meters into the deep, but guard rails are absent. Different from Bolivia in general, driving is on the left "side" of the old road, in order that downhill drivers can better see how many centimeters separate them from falling into the deep. Due to the poor road condition and heavy traffic, approximately 300 fatalities occurred each year. In 1995 the Inter-American Development Bank named the road as "the world's most dangerous road", later also called "Road to Death". Despite of funding by the Inter-American Development Bank, it took almost 20 years until the new road was opened in 2006 - paved and with two lanes, but the driving style of many drivers has not changed and so fatalities continue. There exist a lot of (shocking) videos in Youtube about the conditions on the old road.

This apparently being not yet scary enough, downhill biking became en vogue on the old road since the 1990s, as nowhere else in the world there is a road which descends from almost 5000m to 1000m within a length of only 60 km. You can board your bike at "La Cumbre" mountain and then it's essentially a question of not braking too much, otherwise your brakes will somewhen be gone. Due to this, the cyclists reached speeds up to 60 km/s and had to go slalom between the cars. Despite the downhill madness, there were only 13 fatalities recorded amoung 25000 cyclists since 1998, so statistically this was even the safest vehicle option on the "Death Road". Since the new road has opened in 2006, the old road is primarily used by cyclists, although it is still being frequented by motor vehicles as well.

What is a "semi-jungle"? Well, some people call the vegetation in the Yungas already a rain forest, but I would rather describe it as a humid, hilly region of sub-tropical vegetation. My original expectation about Coroico was very different from what I found. Concerning the fauna, I thought to see parrots and tucans, but instead there was a huge diversity of insects (and cockroaches more than 10 cm in length).

According to the Bolivian law, Coroico is the most important tourist place in the country (it's strange to me that this is defined by a law, rather than being derived from travellers' statistics). How can I describe Coroico to you ? Well, I would say it is the perfect nightmare and hell for an economist. Upon my arrival there was no taxi at the bus station. I actually did not want to carry my 12 kg bag pack during 30 minutes up the hill. So I went to the main place, and yes there were several taxis, but the drivers were undiscoverable or hanging around in some pubs. To make it short, in general I had always the impression that in Coroico the vendors of goods or services and the clients do not meet. I was rather a bit disappointed, after all what I have heard before about this place. Very strange was also that all hotels tell you to bring sufficient amounts of cash, as there is no ATM in town. Once there, I found that essentially for each sight seeing option outside the town it was not recommended to go there alone, as several armed robberies on tourists had occurred. Is it just me who sees a correlation here?

On my return day to La Paz the typical Bolivian transportation problem occurred again. Although the (mini-)buses were said to leave each hour, several departures had been cancelled due to an insufficient number of passengers. I agree that it would not make sense to let a bus depart with only one or two passengers, but the problem is that they really wait until the bus is completely full. So the employees were "searching" for more clients outside the bus terminal, which was successful but resulted in one client more than seats available. So a "tombola" decided who was the idiot to wait until the next bus was full again. Immediately after the bus had left the terminal and throughout the road there was a significant number of potential passengers who would have loved to join us, but there were no more seats. In Bolivia, buses operate generally point-to-point without taking passengers on the way, which puts the population in rural places in big problems. It would really make sense if the buses leave with some 20% of the seats still available, rather than waiting hours for the seats to fill. These seats will easily fill on the road, the bus company would transport more passengers in total and have higher profits, but ... maybe I am alone with this feeling of logic.

During the ride back to La Paz we could witness that the driving style on the new road has not really improved. Several times our bus was overtaken in a hair rising way by road tankers. It was the first time that I saw trucks driving only on their right-sided wheels (as they took the curves with much too much speed).

"La Cumbre" at 4600m, where the two roads to Coroico start - the paved new road and the old unpaved "Death Road". Clouds often accumulate between the mountains. Together with speeding drivers this can still be a problem even on the new road. 43 fatalities have occurred on the new road just this year. Our driver spoke a prayer before continuing. This IS already an improvement, because on the old "Death Road" the same number of fatalities occurred almost per month - and drivers used to consume alcohol before reaching "La Cumbre" to get sufficient "courage" for the trip on the old road.

"La Cumbre" at 4600m, where the two roads to Coroico start - the paved new road and the old unpaved "Death Road". Clouds often accumulate between the mountains. Together with speeding drivers this can still be a problem even on the new road. 43 fatalities have occurred on the new road just this year. Our driver spoke a prayer before continuing. This IS already an improvement, because on the old "Death Road" the same number of fatalities occurred almost per month - and drivers used to consume alcohol before reaching "La Cumbre" to get sufficient "courage" for the trip on the old road.

The old "Death Road", althought still in use by some cars, is used for a kind of bicycle downhill madness. The cyclist just has to brake during several hours, obviously not braking too much as otherwise the brakes will somewhen be gone. It is said that speeds up to 60 km/s and more are reached on the bicycles.

The old "Death Road", althought still in use by some cars, is used for a kind of bicycle downhill madness. The cyclist just has to brake during several hours, obviously not braking too much as otherwise the brakes will somewhen be gone. It is said that speeds up to 60 km/s and more are reached on the bicycles.

My hut in Coroico for two nights (it may look bigger than it actually was).

My hut in Coroico for two nights (it may look bigger than it actually was).

View from Coroico.

View from Coroico.

Endless coca fields. The coca plant is very easy to cultivate. Ten months after putting the seeds, the coca leaves are ready for the first harvest. Thereafter, each three months a new harvest of leaves is possible from the same plants, up to a duration of 15-30 years. With oil extracted from coca, the Incas were able - already around the year 1200 - to perform cerebral surgeries under anaesthesia.

Endless coca fields. The coca plant is very easy to cultivate. Ten months after putting the seeds, the coca leaves are ready for the first harvest. Thereafter, each three months a new harvest of leaves is possible from the same plants, up to a duration of 15-30 years. With oil extracted from coca, the Incas were able - already around the year 1200 - to perform cerebral surgeries under anaesthesia.

Sunset behind "La Cumbre" as seen from Coroico (the colours are REAL).

Sunset behind "La Cumbre" as seen from Coroico (the colours are REAL).

© Oliver Schuetz, 2008
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The trip
 
Description:
Planned is a two-week trip to Bolivia, mainly in the Altiplano with a short detour half way into the jungle. Not sure whether I will be able to attach photos during the trip, so make sure to visit the pages later again.
Details:
Start of journey: Nov 12, 2008
Duration: 15 days
End of journey: Nov 26, 2008
Travelled countries: Bolivia
The Author
 
Oliver Schuetz is an active author on break-fresh-ground. since 12 years.