5th March – The Cordillera Real is a lofty and dramatic mountain range in Bolivia, with many peaks over 5000m and six over 6000m. East of La Paz, this huge mountain range plunges down toward the Amazon lowlands through a region of spectacular, green, rugged and forest-covered mountains and deep sub-tropical valleys, known as The Yungas.
It is an important coca-producing region and the leaves from here are considered to be sweeter and better for chewing than those grown in the Chapare. Coffee and tropical fruits such as bananas, oranges and papayas are also grown, but coca from The Yungas is still dominant in the Andean markets and it remains legal for traditional use.
From La Paz we are heading east, following a route via Palca, Tres Rios, Chuvani and then turning northwest to Chulumani and finally Coroico, where you can start the famous Death Road – the old road from La Paz to Coroico, hewn from the mountain sides and with sheer drops! The manager at Hotel Oberland where we are camping assures us however, that the route we are taking will be spectacular, as he has done it on his mountain bike.
We finally find our way out of La Paz over the rim of the mountains and at the first police post at Uni, we give a lift to two Germans who are visiting the canyon there. It looks quite a spectacular place as we drop them off at the top to make the trek down.
We climb to over 4300m and have views of distant, snow-clad mountains.
From Palca to Tres Rios, we are on narrow tracks cut out of near vertical mountain sides that then plunge to valleys far below, often with swiftly flowing rivers. Waterfalls gush down from dizzying heights, very often creating rivers across the road. This must surely be Death Road No.2!
The scenery is very spectacular and the local people respond to waves and smiles. Men and women are bent double working in the terraced fields of crops covering the hillsides and we see them walking home in the late afternoon along mountain tracks – who knows how far to their homes.
We are up in the mist and low cloud near Tres Rios at over 4000m and again at Chunavi, the sun filtering through the clouds and illuminating patches of bright green and yellow, as we descend.
Once out of the mist, many trees are covered in exotic red and orange flowers and fields are ablaze with yellow.
Houses and settlements cling to the mountainside, they have incredible views but I don’t think I could sleep at night, as on our tracks above them, we have to manoeuvre around many huge rocks and earth slides.
From Chunavi however, things begin to go wrong, as the next village of La Plazuela never seems to materialise and our track is now no more than a farm track, with tall grass in the middle. We must surely have missed some obscure turning but there were certainly no signs. Our GPS shows that we are heading in the right direction and so we continue, the track is too narrow for us to turn around on anyway. Light is fading……..
…….and darkness falls and we are still high in the mountains, our lights picking out sheer walls of rock on our left but nothing to our right……because there is nothing – just sheer drops. Fortunately there is no other traffic so we travel alone, but by the time we get to the next town of Irupana, it is almost 11pm. The lights of this town are spread out over the mountain sides and it is much bigger than we expected. We have been told there is camping at Hotel Nirvana but the people who are still around at this late hour, give us directions to all parts of the town, all of which end in wild goose chases! This is quite ridiculous driving around in circles and so we return to a large, grassy square and park next to the school there but we are not putting up our roof tent. We make a tea and have a chocolate bar each – a short lived piece of comfort and then decide to try and snatch a few hours sleep in uncomfortable positions, before the school opens in the morning.
6th March – We move as soon as it is daylight and check our way to Coroico with the local people. Early morning cloud hangs low over the hills.
Children are walking to school – how far they have to walk in their white tunics on this dusty track, is anyones guess. Chulumani appears, spread along the side of a steep hillside – the provincial capital.
We don’t stop here, apart from having our papers checked and to confirm our destination. We stop shortly afterwards for breakfast on a rare piece of flat ground but unfortunately no shade. Our thermometer climbs very quickly to 35 degrees. I fry eggs for sandwiches but feel very dizzy – a combination I am sure of hardly any sleep, high altitude and extreme temperature at only 9.30am.
Back on the ‘road’ we are flagged down by a group of people having problems starting their vehicle and very anxious as they have a load of helados (ice cream) inside. They think it is their battery but our leads won’t start their engine and a fault is found with an electrical coil, so we are unable to help. Fortunately, another 4×4 appears and they are able to load their huge cartons of ice cream on to this and the very elderly gentleman in the group is able to take a ride also and get out of the intense heat.
The track is turning out to be a white knuckle, cheek clenching drive today, as being the morning there is a lot more local traffic, especially large buses and lorries. As they are bigger than us, they expect us to move over to the outside to allow them to pass. They drive round these blind bends as if they expect no one else to appear. If we are very lucky, there may be a pull-in but some of these look very precarious hanging over the edges of vertical drops or with the edges crumbling away and we have to back up to find a safe place. I pull in my wing mirror and the vehicles just manage to squeeze by.
We check constantly for Coripata and Coroico but in between the checking, we miss a small, sharp turning to our right and have to return 15km to Villa Aspiozo. Still 50km to Coroico but we have heard there is camping at Sol y Luna. We finally reach this town, perched on a steep mountainside with amazing views
Near vertical, cobbled roads take us to the campsite and we can barely squeeze through the entrance and into the tiny parking area. This is not looking promising and we are right. The camping area is only large enough for tents and there is no level ground for us to be able to park for the night. We do not want to take a hostel as there is no secure parking. We had noticed signs at the campsite making it clear that they took no responsibility for damage or theft from vehicles, so not worth taking the risk. We make the decision to find the main road that will take us back to La Paz. This beautiful, mountainous Yungas has lost some of its charm on us today with the stress and clouds of dust in navigating these steep and dangerous roads. We are not concerned about driving the actual Death Road itself anymore, as we feel pretty sure that this 352km of hair raising, mountainous dirt road full of local traffic, must surely now surpass the original Death Road which is only 40km and now we understand, used only by bicycles and motorbikes with the odd small bus that follows the cyclists.
54km still from La Paz and we are up amongst mist and fog at 4700m. We have to clear these mountains before we can make the descent into the city. This is not a road to be on in the dark, full of lorries, two of which narrowly miss us through dangerously overtaking. There is no hard shoulder on this tarmac stretch of road and a lorry has broken down in the middle of it without any lights, only a warning triangle that has no reflective light for approaching traffic.
Our first view of La Paz at night however, is quite spectacular. A large triangle full of fairy lights, suddenly emerges between two mountains. As we arrive in the suburbs, they are full of people, taxis, buses and dogs, stalls and shops still doing business as if it is 10 o’clock in the morning instead of at night. Rubbish sacks have been dumped on the central reservations but the dogs are ripping them open to find food. Drivers here are incredibly impatient, will rarely give way and start hooting horns at the least little hold up. Getting back down to familiar roads for Mallasa, was surprisingly straightforward and we finally arrive back at Oberland………safely!