Cochabamba surprised us. We had expected it to be just a big, ugly city but it was actually really nice. It was big yes, but a great mix of old and new and a nice feel to it. We stayed here a few days, as we enjoyed the comfortabilities of cable-tv in our hotel room and managed to get on top of the blog again as we had been a bit behind.
Now, we had heard of this back road that you can take from Cochabamba to La Paz. We didn’t really know much about it, like the condition of the road, apart from the fact that it was all dirt, nor did we know anyone who had ridden it. But we wanted to do more dirt roads and we knew that the main highway going to La Paz is the busiest road in all of Bolivia and we wanted to avoid heavy traffic and boring, ugly highways. The only problem was that this road didn’t show up on most maps we could find. It did show on Google maps, but without the names of the villages dotted on the route it would be hard to find our way. Luckily though, one day in a little book shop we found a small map of the Cochcabamba region which had the whole route on it, including villages. Even luckier, in that same book shop we ran into an Aussie biker who had just come from that way and said it was a really stunning road. With this newly gained information and a map in hand we felt much more confident about taking this road.
It took us about an hour to get out of Cochabamba and to find the road we were meant to be on, but once we were on it we left all the traffic behind and we found ourselves climbing up into the mountains rapidly. Soon we were at the same height as snow peaked mountains and judging from the flat spots that the bikes started to have, we were well over 4,000m. It was really cold and windy up there but so beautiful and the best part – there was no one around! An example of how cold it was, was that the water running down the rocks had turned to ice and we could break off huge ice picks, and underneath the dust on the road was a layer of ice as well, so nice and cold it was indeed! Soon enough though we started to descend and the landscape changed from cold and barren to warm and green. The road was super windy and all switchbacks up and down the mountains, taking us through tiny villages (not on our map) and through many, many water crossings. It also presented us with many places where the road split, and being Bolivia of course there was not a sign in sight anywhere! So, we had to rely 100% on our intuition to decide whether to take the track on the left or the right, which was difficult sometimes as they all looked similarly used/unused. But luckily we could always ask the village people for direction (which we had to do a lot!) and it always turned out that we were going in the right direction.
We didn’t make it far at all that day as these small, windy roads proved to be really slow going. I have never gone up and down so many mountains in a day as I did on this road. We only did about 150kms that day which took us to the village of Villa de Independencia where we found a very basic hotel with only cold water in the showers so the dust we had collected along the way stayed on. At least people there were really nice and super curious (I don’t think they get many gringos coming through here) and the classrooms must have been very empty the next morning as we a huge gathering of kids surround us to see the new attraction. Oh yes, and then we got interviewed for the local newspaper as well. In Spanish, so I really had to remember all the things I had learned in my Spanish lessons.
It was hard getting any sort of useful directions from the locals any other than to the very next village. People didn’t even know the villages beyond that. And riding out of Villa de Independencia, we found that the road was blocked by a big pile of rocks. Hmm we thought, not off to a great start. But we managed to ride over it and be on our way. The road started beautifully, taking us up very high and we were riding on smooth dirt along a mountain ridge and we were able to actually get some speed up. Not long after though we started to descend via a really steep, rocky track and we started getting conflicting time estimates for the next village Inquisivi. Now, on our map it didn’t look very far at all, but people were giving us estimates ranging from 1-4 hours! (Note: people here don’t give distance in kms, but in hours; an example of this was when a guy asked how many hours we can ride on 1 litre of fuel!). We thought 4 hours was wildly exaggerated, little did we know…
So, after making it down this really quite rough track we now stand in front of a sign saying Access Prohibited and it looks like it’s the end of the road. Not great. It looks kind of dodgy here and Mark tells me he just spotted an old man running and hiding behind a bush when he saw us coming. The million dollar question is: are we gonna get murdered?! While I sit under the shade of a tree, feeling slightly defeated, Mark walks into this dodgy place beyond the No Access sign to find somebody who can tell us where the hell to go. He returns and tells me that he has spoken to a guy and we can go through apparently. This weird little place turns out to be a pig farm! Weirdest place I ever saw for a pig farm. The road does indeed continue, for a couple of kms, until we stand at a massive river that we have to cross to get to the other side! Mark and I are far from virgins when it comes to river crossings but this river was fast flowing and it was impossible to see the depth of the water as it was murky brown. A pick-up truck was on the other side of the river and a man was walking back and forth to find the best spot to cross, as were we. There were actual 4 or 5 water crossing within the one river as the river split several places. But the first one was by far the biggest. Luckily this guy walked through the water to check the depth and we watched him closely so we could pick our spot. After he had gone through with his car, he helped us push the bikes trough to the other side – we pushed as the water flow was too strong to ride through and we didn’t want to risk dropping the bikes and drowning the engines here in the middle of nowhere. After that we just rode through the other water crossings as they were much lower. Once on the other side we had to stop and empty our boots of quite a lot of water!
After that we climbed up out of the valley once again and up into some more stunning mountain roads that were perched precariously into steep mountain sides with sheer vertical drops down into the abyss. There are clearly more than one ‘Death Road’ in Bolivia! At one point we came around the corner and the road was once again blocked by a pile of large rocks – a bulldozer was working up above and pushing down rocks to the road below where we were. Next to the road was a sheer 1,000 feet drop and the rocks coming down were the size of basketballs so not really the safest situation! It took us a while to get the attention of the men working in order for them to stop and give us a gap to ride through. Well, the guy was hopeless, he wasn’t communicating to the operator of the bulldozer that we were there so the bulldozer simply kept on sending boulders our way! And then when we did get a small gap he would yell at us to hurry up; this is while we were manoeuvring to ride our bikes over this pile of rocks! A local man on a small motorcycle was waiting on the other side to get through and I communicated to the guy above to stop the bulldozer as this guy was coming through. He then waved him through and the old man started riding… then I see the bulldozer coming towards the edge pushing rocks… I hold my breath as I watch a wave of rocks coming down towards this poor old man on his bike. A really big rock just barely misses him but somehow he makes it through safely to the other side. If that rock had hit his bike, he would have been sent flying over the edge of the mountain. Scary…
We spent the night in Inquisivi amongst friendly village people and very cheap accommodation (50B for two). Here the locals told us that we had to backtrack about 20kms to continue the next day, as the bird flies it is only 2kms but because we had to ride down a mountain and up another, it was 20kms. The following day we made kms much faster to the village of Chulumani because the roads weren’t so windy anymore, despite this, this section of the road was probably the roughest on the route as it was quite rocky and rattled us and the bikes to pieces. Dust was a major factor every day which was visible on our brown faces. We had dropped in altitude and all of a sudden we were riding amongst banana and mango plantations and coca leaves being dried on the side of the road everywhere.
Once in Chulumani the traffic started picking up which was a drag after the last few days where we would maybe see all of 3 cars in one day. From here it was a 120 km ride into La Paz, half of it on asphalt so it was a quick ride, but lots of dust on the first section and combined with lots of traffic, we were blinded every time we passed a vehicle. When we turned off the dirt and onto the main road into La Paz, we saw another overlander bike on the side of the road who waved us over. It was a Polish couple, Jurek and Monika travelling on a KLR through South America. They had just come off a taxing road through the Amazon basin battling deep mud and traffic jams because of bogged trucks. Lucky for us they had a GPS and we typed in the address of the hotel we had been recommended in central La Paz and followed them! The 50 kms into La Paz took us up up up and soon we were surrounded by snow-capped mountains and woolly llamas. It was a Sunday so lucky for us the streets of La Paz were really quiet and this combined with Jurek’s GPS meant that it couldn’t have been easier to find our hotel and in no time at all we found ourselves outside Residencial Sucre on Plaza San Pedro. The last few days ride from Cochabamba had been one of the most exciting roads we had ridden on the entire trip. However we would not recommend it to someone who is not confident off-road or has poor Spanish skills!
Plaza in Cochabamba
The very psychedelic, old-school buses of Bolivia
And we're up!
Stunning, winding roads
Lots of farming on the sunny hill-sides, most of it potatoes (there are over 400 varieties in Bolivia!)
Mark being interviewed in Villa de Independencia
The village of Pokara, sitting high in the mountains
At the big river
Getting some assistance from a local
In the middle of the river system
Mark emptying water out of his boots
The river seen from above
We were amazed how they have been able to build these roads into the sides of the mountains
At the section where rocks were being sent our way
You don't want to have a rock hit your bike here!
Nice and dirty after a long day's ride
Lots of coca leaves being dried everywhere on the side of the road
Dust, dust and more dust!