Coroico – three days of total relaxation

After the Death Road ride, most people catch a bus back to La Paz with the tour company. We however, along with a couple of other guys from our group, had decided to stay in Coroico, the end point for a few days. At little over 1000m above sea level it’s much warmer than La Paz and we’d booked a cabin at the Sol y Luna resort after a couple of recommendations from fellow travellers. The only downside is the numerous fruit flies – you can’t feel them when they bite but they are much more vicious than mosquitoes and leave hard, red lumps that itch for days.

The cabin

There’s not a lot to do in Coroico itself but the surrounding countryside is beautiful and it’s a nice place to spend a few days relaxing. Sol y Luna is a 15 minute walk up the hill from town (I would recommend walking into town but taxiing back) and is a sprawling, rustic outfit, with two outdoor pools, a meditation room, restaurant and individual, self-contained cabins, as well as smaller apartments and rooms in the main house.

Incredible bay windows overlooking the valley

We opted for the Alaya cabin, the furthest up the hill from the main house (a 7 minute walk according to the website but I’d say it’s shorter than that unless you’ve got a rucksack on). We had an outdoor shower and toilet, a basic kitchen with two gas rings, and space outside for a fire, with a grill for barbecuing. But best of all was the view, and the fact that we were completely isolated. Utter bliss.

View from cabin

That evening, we opted for dinner in the restaurant, and enjoyed a very tasty and also very cheap trout and chips. Then it was off to bed for an early night – after all that cycling we were both shattered and aching in all the wrong places.

Coroico town

The next morning we ventured into town to pick up some shopping in preparation for a couple of days holed up in our cabin. It’s a small town, and doesn’t have the best selection of foodstuffs but we managed to cobble together sufficient meals for three days in the wilderness.
That evening we set about lighting the fire (you can order bundles of fire wood from the main house for £1.50). All I’ll say is that it’s not as easy as it looks, but toilet paper makes great kindling. After several failed attempts we finally got it going and enjoyed a brilliant night of barbecued sausages and toasted marshmallows. Yum.

The campfire

For the next few days we did absolutely nothing, except read books and listen to music whilst sunbathing on our front porch and enjoying the view. It was the most relaxing time we’ve spent since coming to South America and I would definitely recommend Sol y Luna to anyone coming to Coroico – it makes a nice change from your standard B&B.

Outside toilet sink and shower

After three days of total relaxation it was back to La Paz before an overnight bus ride to Santa Cruz for a few more days of sunshine and then a flight back to Buenos Aires. We’d spent five weeks in Bolivia and had an absolutely amazing time, done some incredible things and seen some awesome sights. Now, after six months on the road (who can believe it?!) we’re going to spend two months in Buenos Aires, learning Spanish, dancing tango and getting to know the city.

Local resident - Diego

 

Biking the world’s most dangerous road

Sorry Mum, I said no stupid stuff whilst away, but this looked like far too much fun.

The World’s Most Dangerous Road is a 64km road from La Paz to Coroico. It’s a small road cut into the side of the Cordilleras, dropping from 4800m to 1500m. A constantly winding road, at best it’s width is 5m, at its worst 3m, with up to 1000m sheer drop on one side and towering cliffs on the other. There is barely room for one vehicle, and it’s a two way road. There are no barriers, the only safety additions are a few signs making you aware of sharp corners, loose rocks or waterfalls falling onto the road.

The road

 

A few years ago an investigation was carried out to find the road with the most fatalities each year. Only as far back as 2007 there were 150-200 deaths a year on this road and it won the title of The World’s Most Dangerous Road. These days most traffic now travels via a new road cut into an adjacent mountain, but the road is still open and locals say the old road is easier on the engine and slightly quicker and so it remains open. If you’re a fan of Top Gear you might remember the episode on this road

One of the most popular backpacker attractions in Bolivia is to ride down this road on a mountain bike. How could we say no?

The start of the death road, 5000m and very very cold

There are about 10-15 different operators who are licensed to take groups of cyclists down the road, ranging from back-room operators with appalling safety records to expensive outfits with loads of extras. Since arriving in La Paz, we have learnt a backpacker died on the road recently; a fellow salt flat traveller was in hospital with 2 broken ribs thanks to the road; and a chap sitting next to us in the pub broke his arm the day before. About 20 cyclists have died attempting this ride so we decide as we have NEVER ridden a mountain bike off road we will lengthen the odds of injury and go with Gravity Assisted tours. They are very well recommended but more expensive. They also exclusively stop at a local animal refuge at the end of the road. We can’t say no to more monkeys.

At 7:30am a group of about 12 fellow backpackers meet at a small café in downtown La Paz, a few sign up for insurance and we sign our release forms. It all adds to the anticipation. It takes about an hour in a small minibus to reach the start of the ride – at 4800m it’s freezing and the air is thin but we were warned, and most of us are wearing 4-5 layers of clothing, apart from an Australian guy who is wearing shorts and flip-flops – and didn’t he love telling everybody – muppet.

Start of the descent

We are given a short safety briefing on how to handle the bikes on the road – it’s bedrock with loose gravel and regular boulders (murder muffins we are told). The guides tell us a few stories of serious injury and deaths so we can avoid a similar fate but it’s getting obvious that those who are going to get into trouble are the very nervous or the very stupid (my money’s on the Aussie going off the edge – not looking as cool in his flip flops as when he started). John, our guide, has 150m of rope, so if we are going over the edge, pick a nice spot – there are no rescue helicopters in Bolivia.

Luckily the fog cleared quickly

And off we go. The first half hour is actually asphalt, and obviously meant to break us into our bikes, which I’m told are very expensive and have special bits on. Lost on me, the seat, like any other, is like a pane of glass up my backside. If a bike costs £2000 it should have one of those NASA memory mattress seats, why suffer?

Within about five minutes our first rider falls, a nasty bit of gravel I think, but she’s fine so we continue on to the start of the Death Road where we pay 25 bolivianos for the upkeep of the road. It’s as I expected: narrow, gravelly, with stunning panoramas of jungle on all sides. Myself and Leah are not the slowest on the road but we’re at the back – it’s a new experience riding on gravel and occasionally skips and bumps, raising the heart rate.

The road gets narrower just around the corner

So, is it dangerous? Yes, of course it is. At times we are riding with only two metres between us and a 1000m sheer drop. But it’s also a whole lot of fun, and whilst other riders scream past us in a hurry to get down the mountain, we take our time and take in the views, it’s stunning. We stop every 15-30 minutes to take photos, get briefed on the upcoming section, told how to handle specific terrain types and also to point out taxis and minibuses that have gone over the edge.

A corner with a nice view

Our favourite section was the narrowest, at 3 meteres wide, with water cascading onto the road from above. The drop was vertical, with no vegetation, and this is the spot Mr Clarkson chose for the Top Gear scene. Here is a little video of us instead…

Slowly, we descend from freezing altitude into sub-tropical heat. Luckily the weather is clear and there are not many cars or lorries on the road, which can be tricky as they make you pass on the outside (which at times would mean standing on the cliff edge).This is the only road in Bolivia where you drive on the left, as drivers need to see where their left front type is, when passing another vehicle, usually right up to the edge. Small villages start to pepper the road, and locals ‘Hola!’ us. At around 2pm we arrive at the animal refuge for a shower and lunch and some more monkeys.

Overtaking fun

An incredible day, and a must for anybody coming through La Paz. It’s not a difficult ride if you take it easy and enjoy the scenery rather then being terrified of it. We are staying at the destination Coroico for four days, it’s a weekend getaway for those from La Paz seeking warmth and lower altitudes.

 

 

La Paz – attack of the Brazil nuts

After Isla del Sol, it’s back to La Paz for a few days. We had originally planned on a quick trip to Sorata, but we feel we’ve been running around for a while now and decide to enjoy La Paz for a bit longer instead. This time, we’re at the Hostal Provenzal, in a prime location just above Oliver’s Travels. Perfect.

Although we’ve got nothing planned for the next couple of days, we’ve got plenty to keep us occupied – blogs to write, emails to send, a bike ride to book, pharmaceuticals to buy, bank visits to be made, accommodation to be reserved…it almost feels like we’re back in the real world for a moment!

The four corners - La Paz

That evening, we decide to treat ourselves to a nice meal at the steak restaurant round the corner. We opt for the set menu for two – nachos, a meat platter of chicken, llama, chorizo, steak, ribs, blood sausage and hamburger, chips, salad, dessert, coffee, a bottle of wine and a shot of tequila each, all for £25. Which is expensive by Bolivian standards but still great value for all that food!! Well the meal was absolutely delicious.  The ribs in particular were great. Of course, the steak was nothing compared to what we have tasted in Argentina but there was certainly nothing to complain about.

Then dessert came. Chocolate ice cream. Yum.

I had eaten little more than half a teaspoon before Rich pointed out that it looked like it had nuts in and we had better check whether they were Brazils (I’m allergic). By the time the waiter came back from the kitchen, I already knew his answer. My throat had that familiar itch to it and my lips were tingling. Oh dear.

When you’re only allergic to Brazil nuts, it’s a pretty easy allergy to deal with in the UK. Peanuts, hazlenuts, almonds – these nuts are common in British food. Brazil nuts are not. In South America, the story is very different. You see women on street corners selling nothing but Brazil nuts and they seem to sneak it into all kinds of food when you are not looking. This was actually my second Brazil nut incident since being in South America, although the first time I narrowly avoided actually eating the nut.

For the next hour, I was in agony as the Brazil nut worked its way through my system. I can only describe it as like the worst indigestion you can possibly imagine, accompanied by being very hot and then feeling sick. I’ve not had an attack for years, but it’s the worst that I remember. We spent the next day scouring pharmacies for one of those epipen things, but all we were offered was vials of pure adrenalin. Hmmm, not sure about that one, I think I’ll just check my food more carefully.

Random street scene

Anyway, after all the drama, the rest of our stay passed without incident, and that Saturday, Judgement Day according to some nut in America, we set off to ride the World’s Most Dangerous Road.

Dog of the week

Isla del Sol – Inca central

Inca legend says that Viracocha, who created the universe (apparently), emerged from the waters of Lake Titicaca and created the sun, hence Isla del Sol. The place is packed with Inca ruins and stunning coastline. There are still about 800 families living on the island, some still working the land, the rest now working the tourist dollar.

Panoramic over Isle del Sol- ( click to zoom )

It has to be mentioned that there are also a fair number of soap dodging hippies on the island. No I don’t want to buy your home-made bracelets, have a wash and control those feral children of yours. Hippies never use to irritate me, I guess it’s me getting old again.

It’s a two hour boat ride from Copacabana, and we decide to head straight to the North of the island,Cha’llapampa, where most of the ruins are in the relative lowland. As we step off the boat it’s like stepping back in time, there are only a few dirt roads between the small houses and huts and donkeys replace cars as the only transport.

Cha'llapampa

The boat arrives at Cha’llapampa at around 10:30am and leaves for the South of the island around 1:30pm, which gives us just enough time to take a look around. There is an impressive hike between the North and South villages but we decide against it as we are still at altitude and are feeling lazy.

View over Cha'llapampa

The scenery here is stunning, even without the Inca history it would be worth the visit. We pass the Rock of the Puma, or Titi Kharkae, which gave the lake it’s name; an Inca table used for human sacrifice; and finally the Temple of Pilcocaina, a surprisingly well preserved Inca settlement. The altitude and heat is unforgiving, so after a dubious chicken sandwich and a warm drink (there is electricity for only a few hours here) we find some shade and wait for the boat.

Cha'llapampa, Cordillera mountains in the distance
Temple of Pilcocaina

Many people visit Isla del Sol on a day trip from Copacabana. Don’t. You will only have a few hours on the island and will spend most of your time on the boat. There are a number of places to stay at Yumani, in the South, if you can manage the devastating 400m climb up the steps from the port.

Stunning walks in the north

Small kids tout accommodation when getting off the boat, and are harmless. They seem reasonably impartial and will take you to a number of hostels for you to choose. They get tipped by the hostel owner but we give the chap a little extra as he finds us a private room at Inti Wasi. It’s a basic room with a toilet and shower (water between 8pm and 8am), the shower however is hooked up to the mains and gives an incredible shock when you try and turn it on. I must remember to write a blog about the unbelievably dangerous showers they have out here…

There is nothing to do here at night apart from eat or drink. We head up to the ridge for sunset and bag a quite spectacular table, another incredible few hours. The sun sets across the island as wild donkeys run through the streets behind us. The temperature drops, we have another beer and head back to our hostel for a great pizza.

Better than your average beer garden

I didn’t mention the best bit about our accommodation – our bed sits at the foot of a large window looking out directly over Lake Titicaca and the Cordillera mountains in the distance, the best seats in the house for the sunrise. So at 6:15am we shuffle to the end of the bed and open the curtains to watch the sun break over the mountains. I will end this blog with a nice little HD video of the sunrise, about 30 minutes compressed into 30 seconds. Enjoy.

Copacabana – Bolivia, not Brazil

Copacabana sits on the shores of Lake Titicaca, the largest high altitude lake in the world. It’s a three hour bus ride from La Paz with a rather interesting ferry crossing halfway through – everyone gets off the bus and catches a boat across the water whilst the bus is carted over on what looks like little more than a rotting plank of wood.

More raft than ferry

Although there’s not a huge amount to do here, it’s a popular weekend getaway for those from La Paz and a common stop on the gringo trail on the way through to Peru. It’s a pleasant enough place to spend a few days and I guess it’s the closest the Bolivians get to a seaside resort, given their lack of coast.

Copacabana

The main road is lined with bars and restaurants, all serving the usual repertoire of hamburgers, pasta and pizza, as well as the local speciality of trout, fresh from the lake, which you can have cooked in at least a dozen different ways for little more than a few pounds. It’s bright and sunny and you can easily while away an afternoon watching the world go by with a beer in hand. One word of advice though – don’t forget the suncream. While it might not feel hot enough to get burnt, at this altitude the air is thin and the pollution low, and before you know it you’ll end up with a rosy face – take it from me, I learnt the hard way!

Copacabana

Like I said, Copacabana is a through-route for travellers going to Peru. However, whilst we’re there, there’s some kind of dispute over mining and protesters have closed the border. We bump into the girls from Sucre again and they are unable to get out. It appears no buses are running at all and everybody will just have to sit tight for the time being.

The next day, and wandering through town we see signs outside tour agencies saying that buses are confirmed for tomorrow. However, when we chat to the girls a few days later on Facebook we discover the transfer wasn’t quite as smooth as they had hoped – the bus dropped them at the border where they had to bribe officials to get across into Peru, then had to walk for three hours with their rucksacks whilst protesters threw stones at them. Others are still struggling to find a safe route out of Bolivia, the airlines have hiked flight prices sky high and there are rumours of the border not being properly open until June. Thank God we’re going back to La Paz.

Copacabana

After a couple of days enjoying the sunshine, we catch a boat across to Isla del Sol in the middle of the lake – a lot of people just take a day trip but we’ve decided to stay the night…

Boat to Isla de Sol ( Click to Zoom )