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The Death Road and the Amazon Basin

During my stay at Colibri I want to ride the Bolivian Death Road, an infamous gravel track that was once the only access from La Paz, high in the Andes, down into the Amazon basin 3,600 metres below. This narrow one-lane road has been the scene of many accidents, with trucks and buses often plunging off its near-vertical cliffs into the abyss below.

It is reported that more than 300 people would die here annually until an alternative highway was built. Since then the Death Road has been more of a ‘must do’ for adventurers, mainly on mountain bikes supplied by one of the many tour operators in La Paz.

I’d read on iOverlander that the Death Road was closed to all vehicular traffic at the moment because of a massive landslide that the cyclists were able to carry their bikes over, but I needed to go take a look all the same. Thinking it might be more enjoyable to ride the road from the bottom back up to the top, I crested the pass above La Paz in freezing temperatures on the new highway, heading for the town of Coroico far below in the Amazon basin.

The new road is amazing with massive tunnels and switchbacks as it plunges off the Andes. I can look across the valley and see the Death Road in the distance as it winds its way down.

45 minutes later I’m shedding clothing and sweating in tropical Coroico. Here there are tropical flowers and bananas growing on the roadside and coca farmers tend their crops on the steep mountainside, drying their product on the only flat land available, the roadside.

Coca is often used to make cocaine, but locals also chew the green leaf as a mild stimulant and to relieve the symptoms of altitude sickness. Much of the cocaine produced found its way into the US and the CIA worked closely with Bolivian troops to eradicate the production of coca. This was extremely unpopular amongst the poor coca farmers and they elected Evo Morales, himself a coca farmer, as President.

Evo Morales served an unprecedented 2 terms (10 years) and was one of the few presidents not to die in office (most by assassination). Needless to say, his time as president put paid to the CIA’s plans to stop the importation of cocaine from Bolivia.

In Coroico I locate the end of the Death Road and begin my ascent, only to be blocked at the toll station where my suspicions were confirmed that I wouldn’t be riding the Death Road anytime soon unless I wished to punish myself on a mountain bike. Ahh... no thanks.

Interestingly one of the major companies running Death Road mountain bike tours is a Kiwi guy. Apparently his bikes are renowned for having good brakes... a great edge to have over the competition.

I spend the next few days riding a dusty dirt road that connects some out-of-the-way towns and villages down in the Amazon basin between La Paz and Quime. The road is poorly maintained and there aren’t any gas stations out here. Instead, fuel is sold by roadside vendors. The price is just over $1 NZD per litre, and without the Gringo tax!

Coca production is the main income of those that live here. Coca grows well at altitudes around 1,000 metres and there are many plantations on the steep hillsides. The local villages provide ideal flat ground for drying the lucrative crop.

There are not too many accommodation options here and I take what I can get. The rundown hostel utilised the ‘suicide shower’. Dodgy electrical wiring and water…what could possibly go wrong?

From Quime, my route back to La Paz has us traversing yet another mountain pass at over 4,700 meters, leaving both the bike and I gasping for oxygen.

Back in La Paz I’m waiting to meet up with a group of mainly kiwi adventure bikers on an organized tour of Bolivia. I know several of them and it’s good to catch up over dinner.

I take the time to explore La Paz a little more.

The tight winding roads leading down from El Alto into La Paz are so steep my brake fluid boils and I lose my rear brake.

My hotel is centrally located in the old city near The Witches Market.

The wiring outside my hotel reminds me of India.

Private car ownership is difficult for most in La Paz, most people use gondolas or the many buses or minibuses. Traffic jams are just a part of life here.

Next morning I check out and head for the Peruvian border with a stopover in Cocacabana. To get there I must cross the narrows on Lake Titicaca by ferry.

The ferry is interesting to say the least.

I guess planks for the deck are in short supply, straight ones even more so. Our captain gets us safely to the other side though.

I make my way to Cocacabana, spurred on by visions of white sandy beaches, palm trees and beautiful tanned women in colourful swirling dresses, sashaying by as I sip on a cold cocktail, but that would be Cocacabana, Rio de Janeiro...

Instead I get Cococabana Bolivia.

A cold wind blows off Lake Titicaca into the steep little tourist town. I shop in the street market and get what I need to prepare a meal at my hostel.

Nearby is a large church. Here newly purchased vehicles are driven, from all over Bolivia, to be adorned with flowers, drenched in cheap plonk, and blessed by the padre, ensuring a long and trouble-free ownership.

Personally I think changing the oil and fixing the potholes might be more effective, but each to their own…


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