"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.