Exploring the non-touristy parts of the Death Road and what’s beyond it
by SeenThat on June 2, 2011
I had arrived from Tarija frozen. The last leg on the plateau was so cold that the passengers’ breath vapors condensed on the windows and then solidified into ice within the bus. Once in La Paz it was clear I needed a warmer place; going beyond the Death Road was an attractive option.WarningThe trip described in this journal reaches Trinidad through the harshest and most dangerous path. I traveled during the dry season and even then it was unsafe. During the rainy season, the path is definitely dangerous; accidents are invariably fatal and not so rare. If willing to reach Trinidad through a safer path. Do so from Santa Cruz. If attempting this during the rainy season check out that the roads and Trinidad are not flooded.The Death RoadThe Death Road I described in the journal of that name is the touristy one. It begins in La Paz, crosses La Cumbre at its highest point and then ends down in Yolosa. From the last a secondary road climbs to Coroico, a resort town. The part of the road from La Paz to Yolosa is paved and good (bikers take a detour from Unduavi through the old unpaved road). However, the Death Road continues to Caranavi. Unpaved, it looks and feels as the original horror. From Caranavi, the last leg into the Beni is easier. Once on the flats, the road reaches Trinidad, deep in the Bolivian Amazonian Basin.Flota YungueñaThe area north of La Paz is known as Yungas, a Quechua word used for high, warm valleys. Flota Yungueña - the Yungas’ Fleet – is a bus company specializing in this complex zone, including all the way north to the Brazilian border. Its buses depart from Villa Fatima, near the lower gas station.Reliable service is an oddity in Bolivia; to the extent of the limitation imposed by bad roads, harsh climate and old buses Flota Yungueña provides exactly that. The Trinidad line – the one reviewed here departs every day at 2 PM; tickets cost 120 BOB (roughly $17) and usually there are no problems getting a place. If wishing to get a seat at the front of the bus and next to a window, arrive a few hours earlier. I did so and sat at the very front of the bus second floor, the views of the Death Road were spectacular from there. The adventures of the trip provide a good idea of the service; tips would appear in the various entries of this journal. A point to keep in mind is that most Bolivian buses do not provide meals, air conditioned, toilets or coffee; they stop from time to time for these.If arriving at Villa Fatima early, then the waiting time can be spent at its market – one of the largest in La Paz – stocking snacks and goods for a trip everybody almost knows when it begins, but only God knows when and where it ends.The Death RoadEight passengers were booked to leave from La Paz. At 2 PM all of them were waiting below the bus. Nobody seemed to be annoyed by the fact the bus was standing next to us while the crew was inside the adjacent office. A few minutes later they decided to begin uploading the packages. In a country with an inefficient postal service, bus companies filled the gap. At 2:15 I asked politely to board the bus. "Why not?" said the driver and opened the door. The others climbed behind me. At 2:30 we left the parking lot, advanced one block and stopped near the taxis to Caranavi. A passenger left the bus in a rush – almost jumped through the window to be exact - and bought a cellular phone. No other clear activities justified the stop. Then, we left.After leaving Villa Fatima, the road gently climbs along a narrow valley. The villa is on the upper parts of La Paz – its mean altitude should be around 3800m – and La Cumbre, the first landmark along the way, is almost 4900m. Somewhere along this part of the way is the first police control stop (in Bolivia travel is highly controlled). A sign there states that in the last year thirty people died on this road. The police stop was behind us, and the road kept climbing. The landscape wasn’t very different from the typical Altiplano views: low bare hills and very little vegetation. Wild dogs walking along the roadside and a freezing breeze. The dam along the way has added some color, but not much. The smallish dam collects glacier melted waters and is one of the main water sources to the adjacent city. Soon we reached La Cumbre. Meaning "The Summit," this is a smallish peak north of La Paz; it features a minor glacier and a nice lake next to flat surface just before the Death Road begins. Here, the bikers get ready for the trip downwards. Roughly at 4900 meters above the Pacific Ocean, this is the highest point along the way; it is located on a mountain pass leading to the other side of the Cordillera Real. Once beginning the descent, the traveler enters the Amazonian Basin upper parts.The peaks in this area are not very high – the highest peak seen along the way is just above 5800m – but the landscape is dramatic in the extreme. Almost vertical cliffs of black rocks featuring rivers frozen at impossible angles, a serpentine paved road crisscrossed by dirt paths and sunlight too strong to be pleasant; the traveler is dizzy not by the altitude (that is assuming one got properly acclimatized in La Paz), but by the illusion that this landscape cannot be possibly real. Yet, real it is.High altitude weather is moody. In Trekking in the Everest Region I described how an early winter storm, forced me to ignore acclimatization guidelines and to rush up. Planning sights in these places is difficult. In my first trip there was clear weather and thus I got sublime views of Mount Mururata – a flat, snowed summit sitting straight atop rainforest. This time, as soon as we got below the high mountain area, we entered a thick cloud, everything got misty and wet. The sights were gone, yet even then the trip was extraordinary and in fact the very few things still visible photographed well, since the blinding altitude sun was gone.After a bit over two hours we reached the lowest point of the road, a village named Yolosa. Since Coroico is 1700m above the sea level (3200m lower than La Cumbre!), probably Yolosa is at 1400m. Tourists often continue from Yolosa to Coroico through a picturesque but secondary stones road. Yet, the original Death Road continues from Yolosa to Caranavi. This last leg – of around forty kilometers – has not been paved yet, though it is being improved on some sections. Other sections were narrow – sometimes as narrow as the bus – and crumbling into the adjacent cliffs. Every time a vehicle appeared in front of us, troubles began. The drivers would talk and decide who the one to travel in reverse was. Once that was agreed, a wider point of the road was searched. The bus driver had a helper in charge of directing the maneuvering vehicles. Most accidents on this road happen at this moment. During the wet season, this is suicidal; in the dry season it was merely very dangerous. Once in Caranavi, the relieved driver began breathing again and we had a couple of hours for dinner and exploring the Coffee Capital of Bolivia.From Caranavi, the road continued descending through a hilly rainforest, similar to the one in Cambodia. The forest was dense and the area scarcely populated. Well after midnight, we met a stuck bus; their passengers moved into our bus. Moving the packages took a long time, but eventually we began moving again. At 3 AM it was time to call it a day and get some sleep.
by SeenThat on June 3, 2011
"It’s like Coroico, but smaller, less important and deeper in the Amazonian Basin," was what my Bolivian friends told me about Caranavi. With such an introduction, my delaying a visit there was expected. Once there, I found they were very wrong. It isn’t right to expect from people who never traveled to describe accurately places they barely know. Moreover, the relevant traveling parameters are a mystery to them. Looking at a map can always help judging such claims. Coroico is a resort town on a hill; it is reached via a detour from the Death Road at Yolosa. Caranavi is about forty kilometers deeper and sits on a narrow valley. In contrast to Coroico, the main road connecting La Paz with the Bolivian north crosses the town. Considering these, Caranavi was expected to be larger. Accordingly, Coroico is a small town with a million-dollar view, while Caranavi – nowadays often marketed as vacations’ alternative to Coroico – is a bustling town on the verge of becoming a small city. As such it is worth very much a visit. The Bolivians’ assessment may have an historic source; Caranavi was part of Coroico until it was separated into an independent municipality in 1992. Later on, its northern side and the last stretch of the Death Road became what now is "Alto Beni," (High Beni).Once in Caranavi, I found its similitude to La Paz striking and the appearance of insects – the Altiplano is almost sterile - shocking. Oversized specimens decorated many shops. Despite the sharp climatic change, the cultures were practically identical. Food, speech patterns, houses setup and decorations were all identical to those in the big city. As such this is a tropical alternative to La Paz, which is 160 kilometers south of there. "Tropical alternative" means better food and higher temperatures in this case. Caranavi is famous also for its fruits and sometimes is referred to as the Coffee Capital of Bolivia. One of the main coffee shop chains in Bolivia uses Caranavi coffee as one of its two major sources (the other one being the National Park Madidi). Considering they use just Robusta beans – without using Arabica ones to form a high-quality blend – the result is remarkably good.In this trip, I found myself crossing Caranavi twice. In the way down we made a long night stop there and in the way up we stopped during the morning. Since it seats at the bottom of the most dangerous part of the Death Road, it is used by all drivers as a relaxing point after or before the punishing path. Exploring the main sights of the small town was simple and pleasant. Its importance was obvious. The bus terminal was at the very center of town and was busy at all times. A narrow stream added some color to the dominant green; dense rainforest covered the steep hills around. Not thinking of South East Asia was impossible, especially while studying the food stalls and restaurants at the town’s center. At night, the bus terminal area resembled very much an Asian night market. Some of the foods met here were unusual, others very expected.Barbecued meat was obviously the favorite dinner. Some of the cuts – guts and stomachs – were questionable, but the smell from them didn’t allow me to stay and ponder on this issue for long. Next to them, large bottles of local honey were for sale. Supporting their sweetness were rectangular blocks of chocolate, which is native of the area. It is interesting to note that in Spanish the word "cacao" denotes the fruit, while "cocoa" designs the processed powder. The final product – chocolate – appears in two shapes. Small medallions are sweet and used for preparing a drink with the addition of hot water; they contain granulated sugar and are quite unpleasant for consumption as a chocolate snack. The rectangular blocks – see pictures - are used for cooking and are very bitter. I didn’t find cacao fruits in Caranavi (I was told to return for the market days – Wednesdays and Thursdays), but I saw two other fruits worth mentioning. One was the "seditas" ("little silks" in Spanish), tiny bananas covered with a thin, silky skin. The other was the motaku nuts (see pictures). Sized like a large nut, the motaku features a fibrous and hard skin which must be broken with some pointy object. Then it can be peeled – it takes determination and force – to reveal an orange fibrous meat covering a very large brown stone. The meat is the edible part and it tastes like a fibrous, soft almond; a wonderful reminder of nature’s biodiversity in the tropics.
As said, I crossed Caranavi twice in this trip. Eating and stocking up on tasty snacks was unavoidable during both of them. In the second visit, I found myself there at a perfect timing for breakfast and very hungry since the bus had suffered serious delays (worse was to come). The bus parked near the bus terminal and I found myself staring at a row of restaurants, all of the offering "Desayuno Completo" (Complete Breakfast). How was I supposed to choose among them? Trying to design the perfect plan for this task, I was distracted by a policeman running in my direction and shouting wildly. He was armed. He bypassed me (was I transparent?) and stopped by the bus door. He told the bus to unblock the terminal entry. The bus departed immediately and found a better place about two blocks from there. At a nearby stall a woman told the policeman: "It’s just for five minutes! Why do you keep bothering everybody?" "Shut up or I’ll close your stall!" was the official answer. It brought me back into the Bolivian reality, choosing a restaurant was now a priority; I didn’t want to hear the rest of the argument.I turned my attention back to the restaurants and found one named "Cafeteria Sublime." A sublime coffee shop here in Caranavi? How could I say no? I went in and ordered a complete breakfast, for 10 BOB, about 1.5 USD and the price of a regular set lunch in La Paz. "Tea, mate or coffee?" the waitress asked. The three of them were grown locally and I chose coffee though I knew it would be problematic. The fact coffee is a major crop in Caranavi didn’t mean they know how to prepare it. The place was small – just six tables – and almost full, as all other adjacent restaurants were at this time of the day.I was expecting something similar to the "Desayuno Yungueño," a popular breakfast in nearby Coroico and in La Paz; after all Caranavi is the largest town in the Yungas. A typical Desayuno Yungueño includes rice, beef, egg, banano (roasted plantain) and a coffee. This isn’t an indigenous dish; rice was brought here by the Spaniards. The same goes for the coffee and other ingredients. All this hints to its being a colonial times dish designed for agriculture workers. They had a very rich breakfast and then went to the fields for the rest of the day. That was good also for me; I had an IgoUgo journal to write.Pretty soon, I found the local version was slightly different. First, the coffee and a small bun were put on the table. The Desayuno Yungueño includes large amounts of bread and toasts, thus, the bun meant this was something else. The coffee was very weak and of the local "destilado" type; for the sake of my good opinion on the locally grown beans, I skipped it. Luckily, I didn’t wait; the main dish was put in front of me. Technically, we had only a thirty minutes stop, but I knew it would take at least an hour to find all the passengers, so I wasn’t in a hurry.The plate began with a generous serving of rice; locally grown it is often used broken and over-boiled. Here it was passable, but just so. Atop it rested in anguish a fried egg, a small steak, two slices of tomato and two chunks of baked cassava. Known as "yuca" here, this plant acclimatized well and became a staple in many parts of South America, depleting of nutrients wide regions. By far, this was the most interesting ingredient, though also the steak provided a point of interest. The Beni is known as the meat producer of Bolivia and meals there and surrounding areas tend to be rich in meat. Here the serving was relatively small and reminded me it was a touristy restaurant next to a main bus terminal. Did I have time for a good coffee? It was time to explore the area. Paying hastily, I left the sublime coffee shop for the sake of the warming sun.
The parking bus moved violently and awakened me. It was dawn, but it wasn’t cold, at least not so in comparison to the frozen highlands I left the day before. Around the bus everything was flat, but I still couldn’t see enough to judge if there were any mountains nearby. A sign at the bus company office – that’s where we stopped – said "Yucumo Branch." Later in the trip I learned the importance of this apparently insignificant stop.After the driver dropped a few packages at the office, we left. The landscape, barely illuminated by the weak sunlight, was completely flat; gone were the mountains, steep hills and rainforest of the trip’s first leg. A few hills could just be seen in the direction we came from. Sunrise was spectacular for its weakness; on the plateau sunrises feel like an explosion of light, here the soft reds played with the vegetation’s greens. A packed dirt road advanced through a savannah where cattle lived happily, but for sure shortly. It looked pretty much like Cambodia or certain parts of rural Thailand, but I wasn’t there. In the northeast of Bolivia, the Beni Department is the second largest department of the country and is placed entirely within the Bolivian Amazonian Basin.Yet, the differences with Asia were also clear. Beni was separated from Santa Cruz in 1842 and is still pretty much attached to the last. Their combined area is similar to Thailand; yet, the Beni has just over four hundred thousand inhabitants. Santa Cruz is more populated, but also quite empty. Thailand – probably just marginally more fertile than the Beni – is approaching seventy million inhabitants. All the Americas are scarcely populated, but the situation in Bolivia borders with desolation, despite the outrageous fertility of much of it.About an hour later we arrived at San Borja, a major stop and had breakfast. Sadly I must warn again against eating and drinking anything not prepared in front of the customer and being consumed also by denizens. More details would be given in the San Borja review. Feeling a bit poisoned, we left the village and were again on the unpopulated flatlands. Why was this paradise empty? Too much poison, maybe.As in most of Bolivia, the roads along the entire trip were unmarked and featured no milestones. Adding to these the lack of any prominent landmarks meant the only way of guessing the actual position of the bus was calculating it from the time left to the next – or previous - stop. That works only for those well acquainted with the place. For me, this was a tabula rasa, since I was to get a good map only later that day in Trinidad. But first, we had lunch at San Ignacio de Moxos, a key native town in Bolivia and probably in the whole of South America as well. While the other passengers ate, I explored the town. The details are well worth a separate entry.A few hours later, we reached the Mamore River. Later on its journey it joins the Beni River and forms the Madeira River, one of the largest tributaries of the Amazon. In 2009 it flooded Trinidad, the capital of Beni, despite the fourteen kilometers separating between them. Ever since there are talks of moving the entire city to a higher place, though it seems a doubtful solution. Here, at the very beginning of the Amazon, you already find monstrous dimensions of fluvial currents. This year there were less severe floods and at the time of my visit the river was safely low..One look was enough to assess the current situation: there was no bridge over the river; barges took buses and passengers to the opposite shore. We left the bus, the bus boarded the barge and we after it. On the other shore the process was reversed; passengers hurriedly stocked on snacks for the last kilometers before boarding the impatient bus. These were on a paved road, the only paved stretch of one of the country’s main roads.Another point of interest was that the crossing point was called "Puerto Los Puentes," namely "The Bridges Port," despite not exiting any bridges. A popular travel writer of the 20th century already remarked on Spanish speaking people giving names that bare no relation with reality. No even one "Rio Colorado" is a "Red River." "Rio Negro" – a "Black River" is invariably clear and pure.But I’m rushing ahead. I was in the barge, looking at the river, trying to assess how it compares with the Mekong when an agitated man caught my attention.He was frantic. Urgency was written all over him. Was I to jump into the water and save his drowning relatives? What was the rush? Mañana, hombre! Breath. He was saying something. The first time it was unintelligible. The second time I understood a few words in Spanish. The third time it came out clear:"Take a picture of me! I don’t have a camera!" he was saying in a thick lowlands accent, fast spoken, atrociously enunciated. Consonants were his obvious nemesis. I complied and then asked: "Would the city be moved?"Ignoring my question he told me the unofficial local history:"In the past, this place was empty, there were only wild cows. Then settlers came and began taking care of the cows and founded Trinidad, without studying the terrain. The city practically sits on its own sewage."Not a newcomer in Bolivia, I knew he was exaggerating wildly. This area hosted one of the very few exclusively fluvial civilizations in the history of the world. It was destroyed by the Spaniards; five hundred years later their descendants couldn’t match the natives’ fluvial technology. Yet, his remark was interesting. In a few minutes, I would be able to judge by myself.
At the center of South America, what is now Bolivia was a central player in the complex history of this continent. The Inca Empire was born here by the migration of people from the Altiplano to Cusco. Then, the Spaniards transformed Potosi into the richest and largest city in the Americas. Its silver shipping routes shaped the imperial administration. Alto Peru (High Peru in Spanish) was moved from the jurisdiction of the Peru Viceroyalty to the Plate River one and then became Bolivia in the early 19th century. Roughly twice its actual size, it was divided in five departments. Giant in size, tiny in population. During the next few decades it lost much of its territory and the five departments were divided into the modern nine. Beni was created by splitting Santa Cruz in 1842 and occupies an area known as "Llanos de Moxos" – the Moxo Plains – named after the native culture of the place.Beni is almost empty; in its roughly 214 thousand square kilometers live just over 400 thousand people, a shocking density of below 2 persons per square kilometer. A third of them live in its capital city: Trinidad, so that its countryside is truly desolated. In this situation, understanding its layout is important since the distances among neighbor settlements are large and the logistics involved are complicated. In the whole department – larger than many countries – there are just two main routes; both of them are largely unpaved and subject to seasonal floods. One runs from south to north, arriving from La Paz through the Death Road and reaching the Guayarmerin border crossing to Brazil. The second runs from west to east, arriving from La Paz, crossing the departmental capital and then continuing to Santa Cruz. The first runs roughly parallel to the Beni River, while the second crosses the Mamore River just before Trinidad. The roads meet at Yucumo on the southwest and next to the Death Road exit point, while the two rivers meet at the border with Brazil, where they form the Madeira River, a major tributary of the Amazon. A popular misunderstanding – presented in the previous entry by the denizen requesting a picture – is the topic of cattle; often it is presented as a traditional occupation of the area. Yet, there was no cattle before the Spaniards arrived, the savanna was an agricultural zone displaying an elaborate fluvial control system. Once the last was destroyed, wild cattle took over the place and shaped modern Beni when settlers arrived from Santa Cruz and created large "ranchos."Few travelers reach this remote area of Bolivia. Those who venture do that due to two major attractions. San Ignacio de Moxos attracts many visitors for its day, every 30 and 31 of July. It offers the best possible contact with the Moxo culture, the native inhabitants of the area. Before the Spaniards arrival, their fluvial engineering skills surpassed modern ones, as described in the dedicate entry in my next journal. The other main attraction is visited at all times. Rurrenabaque – north of Yucumo – is a meeting point between the rainforest and the savanna; it is located on the eastern shore of the Beni River, on the border with the La Paz Department. Savannas are called here "pampa," a Quechua word meaning "open space." It appears also as a "bamba" suffix in many names of places, like "Apolobamba," and it may refer to open spaces in high valleys and the Altiplano as well. Truth is Rurrenabaque became popular with tourists only twenty years ago after a book related to it was published. Nowadays it’s so touristy that is better avoided. Most local travel agencies can help organizing visits to spots of similar interest. Riberalta – in the far north of the department – is becoming an attractive alternative. Beni has more to offer. Some of the Moxos hydraulic works can be visited. Four of them (Lomas Somopae is the main one, just 30 kilometers from Trinidad) are just east of Trinidad. Unluckily, these fluvial engineering wonders do not function anymore. All these are more than enough to justify a visit, and a few journals.
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