A Travellerspoint blog

The Death Road

from La Paz to Coroico

overcast 13 °C

So Steve persuaded me to go on this infamous road between Coroico and La Paz. As I mentioned before, it is so named the "Death Road" due the ridiculously high mortality rate it once claimed. When it had buses, trucks and cars going on supposedly 200-300 people were dying on that road annually. However a newer larger road was built a few years ago and now most of the transit goes to Coroico via that road. The death road now is only really used for the occassional truck trying to get to smaller villages and tourists who want to mountain bike down this temptingly named challenge. Really I think most people do it just to say they´ve mountain biked down the world´s most dangerous road and most companies give you a so telling T-Shirt after completing it. I will not deny that the scenic views and the prospect of getting that T-shirt were what sold me. :P Anyway we went with the most reliable and well-known company Gravity Assisted. Their bikes apparently come from Canada and are worth $2500 US each. The suspension and breaks supposedly top of the line and maintained on practically a daily basis. The guides are mostly from foreign countries and speak english. Our guide was Swedish and I think another of the guides was a Kiwi. Anyway our guide was named Chris I think. Apparently about 10 tourists have died on that road doing the mountain biking over the last 10 years. Only 1 had died with Gravity Assisted in 10 years so I figured that was a reasonable reputation. Lots of injuries though - usually caused by overconfidence. In the last year, Chris told us, people had broken collarbones, someone bit off their own tongue in a fall, another person fell is such a way that they ahh...ripped themselves a new "hole". So if 600 meter drops edges on a gravelly road weren´t enough - just falling off could take you out. You need to ride at a certain speed to get over the gravel, you have to ride "cliff side" on the left side (this is some weird traffic rule just for this road), often conditions are wet and misty at the top because you're in the mountain. Makes for a lot of potentially serious situations. Some French girl apparently got off on the wrong side of her bike and fell over the cliff when a truck drove by - she actually survived the fall and was left screaming for 2 hours before they could get her out. Apparently she died on the way to the hospital. Lots of similar stories on this road. So it isn´t something to sniff at.

It was about an hours drive out of La Paz to the starting point of the ride, La Cumbre. The views I must say were already impressive. We were up pretty high as well - somewhere up there in the 4000-5000 meters. There was snow on the nearby mountains. The whole ride was actually 64km but he death road is only 32 km of that I believe. The rest is paved. Chris had a very dry, sarcastic sense of humour and his english was good but with a heavy Swedish accent so I missed probably 30% of what he was saying. Anyway he fitted us in our bikes and made us all drink this horrible local liquor as some sort of luck ritual. My bike was named Pepino. These bikes really were top line. It was like riding a Rolls Royce of bikes. Such a smooth ride. Anyway we started out and it was easy enough because 90% of the route is downhill. It was slightly wet out and very misty and very very cold at the top (I swear my hands nearly got frostbite). There were some points where we could barely see a few meters in front of us. As we got lower it cleared up a bit. We hit the porcion of uphill. Now they gave us a choice between being driven up in the support vehicle or riding up. Apparently it´s only 8km but uphill at that altitude is one killer ride. Steve decided to do. I decided to save myself for the ride down the death road which would be strenuous enough. It started to pour rain while the few who chose to ride up did it. Seemed like a very long 8km to me and they were all soaked afterward. Conveniently when the rest of us started riding it had stopped. So we started the death road. Very gravelly, waterfalls along the way and some points were you´re like a foot from a 600 meter drop. But you almost don´t notice because you´re paying so much attention to the path ahead of you and you have to. It was a cool ride though, all said and done. We stopped about 8 times - one of which was to have lunch. It was well paced and instructed so nobody had any problems. The key really was to keep your head focused on the road. We didn´t encounter any other vehicles thankfully and I took some nice pictures. It took us probably and 1.5 hours to get down. At the bottom we had a buffet lunch at an animal shelter. Abused or homeless animals taken care of by volunteers. Parrots, rabbits, monkeys, goats, dogs, and other creatures wandered around. There was as particular goat that took a liking to me. I think it tried to hump my leg. It also butted me with it´s horns. The monkeys were mischievous and little thieves if you got near the wrong one. One little bastard started up my leg - I thought he was going to climb on my shoulder - instead he stole the pen from my pocket. He let it loose for a moment and I got it back and he started screaming like a banshee - he was on a rope so he couldn´t come after me. Those monkeys were troublemakers man. Anyway it was a very noble group.

Man the scariest part of the ride was going back up in the bus, man there was times when you could look out and see nothing but the drop - there was no ground between the wheel and the edge. It took an hour and it was a scary hour. The bus shouldn´t really fit on that road, but we made it .

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Anyway good company, good ride and good day. The next day we headed into Peru - where we spend 1/3 of our trip.

Check out more pics of the road here: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=81510&l=a4786&id=684816071

Posted by Janelle_B 13:45 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

Rurrenabaque - Madidi National Park

Chalalan Ecolodge

sunny 35 °C

So we booked 4 days 3 nights - which is really only 2 days in the jungle - with Chalalan Ecolodge. Supposedly one of the best and most ecologically friendly jungle forest lodges in Bolivia and possibly South America. Created and run by the local tribe the people of San José de Uchupiamonas - apparently they are the epitome of ecotravel. The lodge was built, maintained and employs the local people. Does not upset or disturb local wildlife and is pretty much self sufficient.

We flew to Rurrenabaque - the closest town to the park in a small plane. Only fit about 20 people and we could see the pilot. The views were cool though because we went right over a mountain then over rainforest. The flight, happily for me, is only 40 minutes. The runway in Rurrenabaque is a grass field and the airport pretty much a large shack. The weather though is amazing. Tropical - about 35 degrees. It´s lush and green - a complete change from what we had been seeing lately. So hot. We were shuffled into a van thing to be taken to the Chalalan office. We got a flat though a few minutes in. Strangely a frenchman suddely rode up to us in a motorbike selling fresh croissants and pan au chocolat. We were hungry so we bought a couple and jumped into another van. At the office we were explained the way of things. We were at a hotel for tonight and then tomorrow morning our guide would take us in a river boat up the Beni then the Tuchi River for about 5 hours to the lodge. So we headed to our hotel nearby. It was pretty decent. Lots of hammocks and they gave us fresh juice. We had a bit of clean up and rest and walked around Rurre. It´s a pretty place, very touristy though and no ATMs. Anyway onto the rainforest.

We headed out to the boats at 7.30 am. They´re long thin boats and they have to be careful at points in the river because if it gets too shallow the guides actually have to jump out and push the boat otherwise it´ll drift or go over. They had to do that a couple times on our trip. We saw various birds, howler monkeys and I glimpsed a Capybara - the largest rodent in the world. It´s about the size of a medium dog. We had a nice box lunch on a shore - I spied some very large animal tracks when I went to go to the bathroom. Guide said they probably belong to a Tapir. Not a jaguar like I would have thought. We arrived at the lodge and had to walk another 30 minutes to get to the cabins. Steve and I got the "matrimonal" cabin. It was fancy. Hardwood floors, big bed, large spacious bathroom and remarkably clean. Impressive accomedations. The dining hall as well was beautiful - mostly made of mahogany from the forest. We went for a dip in the lake - which was actually filled with caimen but apparently safe for humans. We went for a walk through the forest where our guide, I may have forgotten his name, spoke passble english and explained some of the medicinal plants and we spotted frogs, common squirrel monkeys, a white chested hawk - I think. Really cool. There were also macaws about. Dinner and lunch were practically gourmet affairs. Amazing for the middle of the jungle. Delicious food and amazing amounts. It was a buffet for dinner with the main being fish wrapped and leaves with various traditional tribal spices and baked. We went for a noctural walk after dinner. It was full dark and many bugs and creatures made appearances. Night time in the jungle is spooky. So many noises and seems like even more life comes out including the more dangerous animals. The guide told us that nighttime is the most dangerous time for them because of snakes. The two most dangerous snakes being bushmasters and coral snakes. Both of these are ground snakes. Jaguars do exist in the forest but they stay clear of humans. So knowing there were fatal to humans snakes in the forest made me uneasy. We saw some new poisonous frogs and a big dirty tarantula. He was about the size of my hand but not particularly jumpy or anything. Lots of bugs were attracted to our flashlights so I was happy to leave to night forest. When we got back to the cabin there was a frog crawling up our shower and a rather large spider with a cockroach in its mouth. Very noisy at night as well but we managed to get by. The next day we went for a really long walk. 5 hours. We saw various flora and butterflies, leaf cutter ants, some sort of small wild jungle cat, wild pigs, more monkeys and birds and so forth. Really amazing. The jungle is teeming with life but it´s actually quite to hard to see a lot of it. They blend in. We saw frogs and geckos that were camoflagued to the closest leaf or whatever. In the afternoon we had a nap but I felt up feeling sick because of the heat and probably dehydration. I actually started vomiting and our guide made me some medicinal tea made from plants from the forest. I think it helped. Didn´t last too long happily and I was able to have a bit of dinner and go on the night canoeing session. We were going caimen "hunting". It was really weird to canoe at night in almost complete darkness. There were fisherman bats swooping in and catching fish. We had to shine flashlights close to the shore and you could see the caimen because their eyes reflected back red. We´d wander the canoe over and get pretty close. Most of them were adolescents. Apparently adult caimen don´t usually show their faces to humans. Anyway the stars were so clear and it was quiet on the lake. The next day we headed back out. It was only 3 hours down stream to Rurre. Our flight was delayed, apparently that´s a common occurance for the flight to La Paz, but we still managed to get back that day on the 6pm flight. It was really interesting time in the jungle, I could see how people could take a real interest in say bird watching etc. I guess for me, seeing all these animals in the wild was the real benefit. it´s so much better than in a zoo.

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In La Paz, Steve had continued to try to "persuade" me to go with him on the Death Road. The Death Road being a 32 km stretch of gravel road in the mountains between La Paz and Coroico that is only the length of one vehicle but accomedates two way traffic and is for the most part on 600 meter cliff edges. It´s called the death road because, you guessed it, it has a huge mortality rate. When it was the only road to Coroico and buses and trucks used to go along it, it was reported to have around 200-300 people dying in accidents. Mostly people falling asleep at the wheel and going off a cliff or some kind of careless driving. Anyway Steve had been bugging me to do the mountain bike trek down this road for a while and finally after seeing the pictures I decided to go. Next off is the Death Road in La Paz.

For more pics of the jungle and Rurre go to: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=81033&l=b5e7f&id=684816071

Posted by Janelle_B 12:43 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

La Paz

the highest city in the world

semi-overcast 17 °C

So the bus journey to La Paz was the scariest of my life. Not only did I have visions of the bus crashing just because this is Bolivia and that´s what buses do. I realized in my haste to get out of Uyuni we got on a local bus, not even a upstandard tourist bus, overnight bus. It wasn´t a very nice bus. No bathroom, and it´s a 12 hour bus journey and I soon found out Boliviano´s don´t just stop the bus so a poor tourist can go to the bathroom. The first 6 hours of the journey were over what could be called a path and what could also be called the bumpiest variation of a road I have every been on, on a bus no less. The bus was outfitted with 8 wheels, all 4WD super wheels because that´s how bad the road is. At times we were bumping around so much it sounded like the suspension of the bus was just going to shatter and fall off. You could not get much in the way of sleep due to road conditions. Anyway half way we finally stopped at a place that had some sort of outhouse toilet and the rest of the journey was on a flat gravel road that was much more tolerable. We arrived in the early morning in La Paz and decided to walk to our hostel which was nearby. Everyone seemed to be running which was funny for us because we could barely walk because of the altitude. La Paz has a lot of hills and our hostel was on one, within the Witch´s Market. It was a nice hostel though, Hotel Fuentes. Our room had cable TV! This was very exciting for us because there were channels that show english shows and movies. We explored a bit of the city later and it was indeed loaded with markets. Everyone is trying to sell you something and give you a deal. If you´re good at bargaining you could go back with some amazing souvenirs for a damn amazing price. We took it slow because again we didn´t want to kill ourselves with altitude sickness. We mainly just walked around the market and explored a nearby plaza. Loads of italian and pizza places again. The next day we went to explore the main drag - el Prado. This is just one long street with a lot of shops. La Paz is a fairly modern city and huge and in a bowl shaped concave in a mountain. I liked it. It was a sunday we went out and there was some sort of parade going on. With all sorts of people in traditional-ish dress. The women were in bowler hats, had their hair tied back in long braids, and wore big puffy knee length skirts. The men well were in all sorts of strange attire. Anyway it was quite a parade. We followed it down to the Prado and decided to taste the local salteñas which are the Bolivian version of empanadas. Man they do it right! Salteñas are damn tasty. Hard to eat because the are actually juicy inside but damn tasty. They are still a meat and stuff filled pastry but baked. I don´t know what they fill it with but it manages to be crispy baked but tender sweet juicy in the middle. Awesome. Later in the day we took a look to some of the other markets in town - the electronics market was particularly interesting. They were selling everything you could imagine, stereo equipment, mp3 players, tvs, cameras, music equipment, cables, wires. God knows what else. Unforunately almost nobody had the cable for my stupid sony mp3 player which i lost. The one place that did have it was charging $55US which was the standard price for that particular imported cable. I could have gotten a whole other sony mp3 player of the same make for $70US. Anyway it was really interesting. No shortage of street food or shoe shiners. We booked a trip to Rurrenabaque and into Madidi National Park - Bolivia´s piece of the Amazon pie. Looking forward to what the jungle will bring.

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For more pics of La Paz go to: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=80489&l=d245d&id=684816071

Posted by Janelle_B 10:53 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

Uyuni Salt Flats

the wildest landscapes I have ever seen

sunny 15 °C

So first off I must say the Uyuni Salt Flats (Salar de Uyuni) and the whole south east circuit of Bolivia is a must see. Wild otherworldly landscapes and coloured lakes makes for an amazing experience. Not much in the way of roads though so 4x4 all the way. So we started bright and early on our tour with Estrella del Sur - they escort us to the Chilian exit border and then the Bolivian border - if you can call it thus. It really only consists of a shack in the middle of a high altitude desertscape. At this stage I think we were already over 4000 meters so you could feel the altitude. At the "border" we met up with our driver whose named was spelled Ronald but somehow ended up being pronounced like Zonal or something weird like that. He was fairly young - 22 I think and had already been in the business 3-4 years. The jeep was a 4WD landcruiser built for serious travelling. Apparently normal cars only last 2-5 years in that dry dusty and salty region of Bolivia but jeeps and 4WD trucks last up to 10 years. Also worth noting, only 5% of Bolivian roads are actually paved. However to quote Doc Brown "Roads? Where we´re going we don´t need roads."

Anyway back to the scenery. Day 1. The mountains we started to drive by were coloured in ways I had never seen. Light browns, reds, whites even green sometimes make up the striated textures. Our first stops were coloured lakes. The white lake - laguna blanco. It really was white - some mineral in the water. Green - laguna verde. Looked like a turquoise caribbean sea. Next we passed by a chunk of desert aptly named the Dali desert. Both stark and with unusual rock formations it very much reminded me of one of Dali's many surrealist paintings. The weather though extremely sunny was also fairly cold because of the altitude. We stopped at Polques hot spring after. Steve and I only waded but the others in our group got on the bathing suits and hopped in. It was a very nice temperature and sat on the edge of a lake. We then headed to the Sol de Mañana geysers. There are a smattering of sometimes large smoky holes coloured yellows and browns with bubbling grey liquid. You would not want to fall in that. Really interesting to see though. We then made our way to the hostel we would be spending the night in. It didn´t have showers and was very spartan and was also at an altitude of 4200 meters. That is a serious height. To put that into perspective - the worlds highest city, Potosi (also in Bolivia) is a mere 4090 mts. Two of the Seven Summits (the highest mountains on the 7 continents) are not far off; Carstensz Pyramid in Australia-New Guinea is 4884mts and Vinson Massif in Antarctica 4892 mts. There were points on the first day were we were at an altitude of 5100 mts. Not for too long though. So the "hostel" was well known for giving people altitude sickness - the guides carry oxygen with them. Even though we were literally in the middle of no where they still had beer for sale. Anyway nearby was the spectacular Laguna Colorado - the Red Lake. It was actually red, pink in some areas and white in others. It was also a popular spot for flamingos who get their pink coloured feathers from a certain red organism that they eat in the water. Amazing lake combined with the bright blue sky and the dark brown-red mountain in the background and you get quite the array of colours. Amazing. We went back to the hostel and had lunch - salads and hot dogs - and later dinner - soup, rotisserie chicken and rice. All decent meals. Apparently it gets very very cold at night. Our beds had probably 3 blankets on them and we pilfered blankets from the other empty beds. Most of us had two pairs of socks, several layers and no less than 5 blankets. It wasn´t that cold though. We heard rumours of -10 but I never even saw my breath at any point at night which means it couldn´t have below zero. This night did not go well for me. I was hit with some seroius altitude sickness. I couldn´t sleep at all and I had chest discomfort. If I did manage to fall asleep I would wake up 5 minutes later gasping for air. That´s not uncommon for altitude sickness. Anyway by morning I was in bits and really freaked out because i had no sleep and was pretty well paniced the whole night. Then I got a nosebleed and vomited. That was the worst of it though. The guide from the second jeep gave me a sorojche (altitude sicknes) pill and they gave me oxygen. Happily we were decending altitude that day and they assured me the symptoms would abate. I felt much better after we started heading down.

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Day 2. We headed first to the Arbol de piedra, the stone tree which i suppose looks like a tree but to me just looked like an interesting rock formation. We passed by more lakes that were more plainly coloured but often reflective, more desert and otherworldly landscape. We had lunch near Ollague volcano which was surrounding by volcanic rock formations. We also passed a small salt flat then ventured to our next hostel which was in a small town somewhere...It did have showers but none of us partook. Dinner was soup to start and spaghetti with a lovely sauce. We were now at an altitude of about 3400 mts. I slept fine that night and we had to get up at 4am to get to the salt flats by sunrise.

Day 3. The Uyuni Salt flats. We got there as the dawn colours were marking the sky. The salt flats are mainly just a white layer of crystallized salt on the ground that is apparently 5 meters thick. It goes as far as the eye can see. Dawn colours of light blue, purple, oranges all looked amazing against the distant black mountains and the white ground. It was so beautiful. After sunrise we headed to fisherman´s island in the middle of the flats. A cactus oasis that used to be an ancient coral bed. We had breakfast there and wandered around the island. Some of the cactus there were 900 years old. The rock that composed the island was obviously coral formations. Then to be surrounded by a flat white sea of salt. Really cool. Steve and I then engaged in the time old practice of perspective flexing pictures. This has always been done on the salt flats since young backpackers realized the could be made to look like they drinking beers the size of houses or shrink themselves to seem to fit in their friend's hand. The best one we did I think was a giant me about to step on our jeep. I named it "Janzilla". Another good one was Steve leaning on a giant beer can, and me holding a tiny Steve in my hand. All the fun of having an endless horizon of white nothingness. Anyway on the way out of the salt flats we visited the salt hotel wihch was made out of salt bricks and held many salt figures and tables and stuff. We then began to pass into real Bolivia, what could be described as a dry dusty ghost town or as impoverished desolation. There weren´t many people. We headed onto Uyuni after lunch. Just outside Uyuni is a train cemetery. Old trains are literally dumped there and though interesting in some respects was not the highlight of the trip. Uyuni, another dry town, but with more people and activity just made me want to run. We went to a hostel only to take a shower and paid for it then we got an overnight bus to La Paz.

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My first impressions of Bolivia did indeed live up to it being the poorest country in South America as well as the cheapest. The scenery is amazing, the service unreliable at best - fatally dangerous at worst, an extreme adventure really. Just traveling by even up-standard public transit can be seriously dangerous especially if you´re traveling at night. Apparently it is not uncommon for Bolivian bus drivers to fall asleep at the wheel and either crash or go right off a cliff. The bumpy, unpaved roads don´t help. The highest city in the world is in Bolivia, the largest salt flat, they also have one of the most ecological diverse chunks of the Amazon rainforest. Travelling there can be done amazingly cheaply. I would probably recommend Bolivia as the country where you can see the most for less in South America. Next onto the capital of Bolivia, high rising La Paz. The highest capital in the world at 3600 mtrs. Famous for the incredible number of markets and having the World´s Most Dangerous Road.

For more pics of Uyuni Salt Flats check out:
http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=79259&l=cd0e1&id=684816071
AND
http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=79272&l=8cff5&id=684816071

Posted by Janelle_B 09:26 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

San Pedro de Atacama

my first desert

sunny 33 °C

Arrival in San Pedro de Atacama came after a 24 hour bus ride from Santiago and as pleasant as that sounds it seriously wrecked my head. We also had no accomedation in San Pedro because most of the hostels don´t seem to have internet access. I had every hope of either an informaiton center at the bus station or representatives from the hostels promoting their business. No such luck on either could. The bus station was a dusty gravel parking lot and there was only one lady there from a hostel who we decided to throw our luck in with. The place was nice enough happily and cheap if not a bit spartan. The plan was only to stay there for a couple days then head off on a salt flat tour. The next day I had thought to rest most of the day and acclimatize to the altitude...Steve persuaded me to go on a Valley of the Moon trip. It was quite impressively scenic with landscapes that you would imagine would be on mars. We visited the valley of death in some seriously scorching heat with no hats or much water. The highlight of this was running down a sand dune in bare feet. The sand was surprisingly soft and since it was only spring still cool enough to expose your bare feet to. Next we headed to the valley of the moon. Again very sparse landscapes more red then white but with layers of gemsalt beneath. The sunset was beautiful - the colours surreal. I, however, have found with sunsets as tourist attractions that it isn´t about the location or that the sunset is somehow better there;it´s about simply taking the time to watch a sunset. It doesn´t matter where you are - it´s always beautiful.

The next day I was beginning to feel the effects of altitude sickness: insomnia, fatigue, nausea. Not very fun. We headed out at night on an astronomy tour. Even before we were in San Pedro I had somehow heard of the crazy frenchman that lives there in the middle of the desert. He´s more funny than crazy a very interesting guy and very french in his flamboyance. Very informative though and served us some very good hot chocolate after the tour. The next day we were supposed to head out salt flat tours. I was very anxious about this having read a very graphic account of an accident in April that happened on the flats. Dangerous apparently, 17 people died on the route, simply from falling asleep at the wheel or careless driving. We picked the company that had the best reputation out of San Pedro however I think they all are pretty similar. No seatbelts or radios and this is some serious terrain. No way you could travel on it in anything other than a 4WD Jeep. Anyway we were supposed to go the next day but altitude sickness, anxiety and the neighbours partying till 4am got the better of me. I hadn´t had any sleep, and was in a state because of the altitude sickness so we had to put it off. We ended up having to stay in San Pedro for an extra three days. I rested for most of and got better, Steve did mountain biking around the area apparently almost getting himself lost in the desert one of the days.

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San Pedro is a decent town to use as a base to travel to the amazing sites around it: Valley of the Moon, Death Valley, el Tatio geysers, Astronomy tour but can be a really boring town and expensive town. We were damn happy to leave even if it meant heading perilously into the Bolivian Altiplano. San Pedro was my first desert and a very interesting landscape and atmosphere. Dry and hot and sparse. How anything grows there i don´t know. Better things to come though. To the Salar de Uyuni, the biggest salt flat in the world.

Check out more pics of San Pedro here: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=78299&l=eb748&id=684816071

Posted by Janelle_B 17:34 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

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