Coroico – Biking to the Yungus

Since I wasn’t able to hike to the Yungas (the lower altitude, subtropical side of the Bolivian Andes) from the mountains, I decided to bike there. In bicycle you can really see the scenery, feel the change in climate, and really experience each moment along the way with all your senses. Sometimes you can even see the change in wildlife along the way.

Since I didn’t know where and how to rent a bike, the easiest and quickest way was to go along with one of the touristy tours that rent you the bike, gear, guide, support van, and transportation to a starting point and back and that advertise the route as Death Road or “the world’s most dangerous road”. Actually called “North Yungus Road” or “Coroico Road”, the route is a windy, steep downhill dirt road that used to be the primary route to Coroico, before they built a new paved route that is supposed to be a little less windy and steep and therefore has fewer incidences of cars going too fast and finding themselves flying off the cliff. (An estimated 300 travelers were killed annually when this was the primary route to Coroico).

As a mountain bike route, it’s not too dangerous since it was designed for cars and so is actually fairly wide. That said, it would be dangerous for someone that isn’t used to biking and tried to ride like a crazy person. I found it to be a challenging but not too unlike many rides I did regularly in Oxapampa. Going with the tour had its pros and cons*, but overall it was awesome, and definitely a great way to get to the lower jungle town of Coroico where I wanted to go.

To get to Coroico from La Paz, you first have to pass over the mountains, so the van drove us a few hours to the starting point in the mountains at 4,700 meters (15,400 ft) above sea level. We would then ride down to 1,100 meters (3,600 ft) above sealevel. It had snowed the night before which complicated our arrival to the starting point but made for a beautiful, of very cold, starting point.

From white mountains, freezing fingers, and multiple layers, we quickly descended to green hills, greeted by the smell of the moisture and vegetation characteristic of the tropical jungle, (and making me nostalgic for Oxapampa). The views of the hills and valleys, and the river cutting through the valley below (way below), were indescribable. (Sorry, don’t have photos.)

Arriving in the valley, one perk of going with the tour is that we had access to a beautiful little resort with an all-you-can-eat buffet, rustic showers, and even a pool.

The two guides were also cool. One guy was a medical student and was explaining that to be a doctor in Bolivia, one has to study for 5 years, then do a one year internship in a hospital where they don’t pay you anything, and then ANOTHER one-year unpaid “rural internship” where you work in a rural site in “provincia”. (Ok, so this one’s not completely unpaid – the interns receive 15 pesos bolivianos ($2) per day.) Just when I thought the US doctor training program was not ideal…

As the van then continued back to La Paz, I caught a car for a 15-minute ride to the little city of Coroico. I arrived just as it started to rain, so I spent the evening resting and cooking myself a meal in the hostel.

Coroico is a small town with the streets buzzing with activity. There are many little stores (tiendas) and restaurants on every street, vendors selling vegetables and fruits in the street during the mornings, and kids running to and from school in the mornings and afternoons. At night, kiosks open up selling fried chicken and fries – which seems to be the Bolivian evening meal choice, second only to Silpancho – rice, potatoes, carrots, beets, tomato, chicken fried steak, with a fried egg on top. (To avoid an early heart attack and to be able to sleep at night, I cooked a stir fry of vegetables and quinoa for my evening meals, with the bonus of spending less than I would have eating out.)

The town was small enough that I quickly felt at home there. People weren’t immediately warm – everyone was busy living their lives and didn’t even notice a random tourist walking the streets, which I kind of liked. Often they didn’t even hear me greet them, (or were so surprised at a tourist greeting them that they didn’t know what to do.) But when I did get a chance to chat with someone (like the woman who sold me juice or the guy managing the hotel), they were super nice, chill, and helpful.

I read that there were three main sights to see in Coroico – the stations of the cross that lead up to a chapel on a hill with a nice view, and then from the chapel there are two 4-ish-hour roundtrip hikes – one to a hill that overlooks the city and the other to three waterfalls.

I packed my bag with swim gear, asked a couple of people how to get to the waterfalls, and then headed off, running, following a trail that wound around the side of a few massive hills. I was pretty disappointed when I arrived about an hour later and only saw a tiny fall with nowhere to swim, and it seemed that it was just a water capture point for the city. Maybe an appropriate thing to find, since I’m a water engineer, but disappointing.

So I ran back to the chapel, arrived at 4pm and decided to try to climb the overlook hill. The hill started as an open, desert-like hill covered with rocks, dry grasses, and only short bushes.

After about 30 minutes I was surprised to suddenly enter what was like jungle – thick trees blocking the sky and the smell of moist soil and vegetation. After a few minutes, I emerged again from the jungle and the trail opened up again to less dense vegetation and dried grass, only to turn into jungle again a few minutes later.

When the vegetation cleared, there were incredible views of the valley and the towns down below, including the little city of Coroico, which appeared much bigger from above than it seemed being in the city.

Towards the top, the hill turned into pure jungle, and I was sweating even though it was getting chilly as the sun started going down. Jogging uphill, I was thankful for the extra lung power I had gained being at altitude for almost two weeks. I didn’t want to get caught in the night in the jungle, so I decided I would turn around at 5:45 even if I didn’t make it to the top. I kept thinking I was near the top but would find that there was still more climb. I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to make it to the top, and then magically, at exactly 5:45 I arrived to the clearing at the top of the hill! Win!

The next day, I was just about to leave Coroico and I learned that the waterfall I went to was definitely not the waterfall that everyone goes to. I decided that I couldn’t leave without going to the waterfalls, so I started walking (this time the right direction), and then found a car to take me the rest of the way. When I got to the waterfall, I decided it had definitely been worth it! There was not much water in the cascade because I arrived just at the end of dry season, but there was a beautiful pool under the falls calling my name, (and two guys swimming there also calling me to join them).

The guys were from La Paz and had come out for the weekend just to enjoy this specific spot. With little hesitation, I was soon splashing around in the pool beneath the waterfall with them. Within a few minutes, another guy from La Paz showed up – he was showing around a friend from Quito, Ecuador who had come to visit Bolivia for a few weeks. We all became friends for the afternoon and I even ended up catching a bus back with the Ecuadorian woman and her Paceño friend.

Turns out that Coroico, and specifically the falls, are a nice little weekend escape for Paceños. With its warm climate and green hills, it’s a nice escape from the cold, altitude, and busy, tree-less city. I’m so glad I went off the beaten path to find this little gem (and to make a few more friends along the way)!

 

Ignore the jacket…it was actually warm in Coroico, but after swimming in the cold falls I needed to warm up

Famous Footnotes/Bonus Content

* The pros of going with the mountain bike tour were the sag wagon and the food included, but the cons were the cost (it was outside of my low budget but I gifted myself that day), and that it was so touristy that the group had to stop every few minutes so the guides could take photos of each person to later send us.

**I somehow lost my water bottle in the car that I took to the waterfalls, and I was pretty bummed, but then the driver showed up at the falls within 5 minutes, having noticed that I left it. Good, kind people in Coroico!

***Often when I mentioned that I went to Coroico, Bolivians asked me if I saw any black people. Actually, I didn’t. But Coroico is apparently part of the area where many African slaves were brought to work on haciendas and so many Afro-Bolivians live in the surrounding areas.

La Paz – The City Without Peace

La Paz. Don’t be fooled by its name. As two Paceños told me, contrary to its name, La Paz is the city WITHOUT peace. There is always a protest somewhere about something, so there are always police in the Street. Sure enough, the day I arrived, when I turned onto the street with my hostel, two blocks of the road were blocked off, full of tents blocking the street. Miners had camped out in the street to hold a demonstration, (and they were still there when I left a few days later).

La Paz. The capital of Boliva. Nope. Another misconception. Sucre is the capital of Bolivia and home to the judicial power of Bolivia, while La Paz is the government seat, home to the executive and legislative power, but is NOT the capital, as the (biased?) tour guide from Sucre emphasized to us. Meanwhile, many will say that La Paz is highest capital city in the world, at 3,600 meters (11,800 ft) above sea level, saying that La Paz is the “second capital” or “the de facto capital” of Bolivia since it is home to the executive and legislative powers. You decide.

La Paz. Where you go to get a good butt. Every street is either a steep climb or a steep descent. Most sidewalks are actually stairs, or they have steps every few meters. You really have to pay attention to where you’re walking just walking down the sidewalk.

In just 5 minutes walking down the street I saw two blind men passing with their guide sticks and I thought, wow, what an extra challenge to be blind AND live in La Paz.

La Paz. Good people. Like any big city, no one pays you any attention while you’re just walking along (unless they are vendors trying to sell you something), but every time I did have the opportunity to talk to someone everyone was incredibly helpful and friendly. (Don’t get me wrong, there is crime and there are parts of the city that are more dangerous than others, so like any big city I had to be aware of my surroundings, but also like any big city, I got the vibe that most people are just busy trying to do life and happy to help someone out if they can.)

La Paz. The streets of La Paz (many cobblestone streets) are filled with traffic – cars, taxis, and mostly mass transit minivans, and a ton of foot traffic too. But the traffic would be a lot worse if it weren’t for the teleferico… why dig a tunnel to have a subway when you can do mass transit by air?

La Paz. Space is at a premium, and every little bit space is used. From the ground I noticed this, but from the air, it was truly obvious. “From the air?” you ask.

If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it. The “teleferico” is a recently-installed form of public mass transit using ski-lift style cable car pods. It was like a scene out of a futuristic movie, as the pods smoothly sailed across the air, crossing the city like floating pods. It was so cool to watch them from the ground advancing towards the station and then docking smoothly like a space ship into the platform.

And then to ride in the pods above the city! I did a kind of loop around the city, taking the white, orange, red, silver, and then purple line. I haven’t been this awestruck in a while. (And I have taken the teleferico across the green hills in Chachapoyas to see the Kuelap ruins!) I was overwhelmed by the sheer density and expansiveness of the city. I was amazed that I was looking down at the city from above. I was envious that some people ride in this every day to commute to work! I was trying to take it all in…and then the setting sun casting it glow on the snow-capped and colorful mountains in the distance.

I was so awestruck, I admit I was giddy. The enginerd in me was fascinated with the brilliant transportation solution, the curious explorer in me was enthralled at being able to explore the city from above, the geek in me felt like I was a star in a futuristic sci fi movie.

In that hour in the teleferico, I fell in love with La Paz. (I have never met a city without trees that I loved, but La Paz might be opening my mind.) I felt like I was part of the future. In La Paz, the sort-of capital of Bolivia.

 

Bonus Content: Food in Bolivia

Chatting with a Paceña friend I made in the hostel, I learned about a few of the typical foods unique to La Paz and Bolivia. Gracias Valeria!

-“Api” is a blue corn drink (like chicha morada for you Peruvians), but it’s often served warm and thick and with a pastry (pastel o buñuelo which is like a sopapillo – fried dough with honey)

-“Plato paceño” is usually comprised of fried cheese, potatoes, corn, habas, and often a slice of beef, and it’s often served with “chairo” soup.

-“Chairo” is a soup that usually has “chuño” (a black native potato), turnip, habas, carrot, peeled corn, barley, finely chopped potatoes, and the secret ingredient yerba buena

-“Fricasé” in Bolivia is a yellow stew of aji (chile), native potato (chuño), Andean corn (mote), with chicken or pork sopa amarilla

-“Sopa de maní” is peanut soup, which is a soup with a peanut-based broth and potatoes and vegetables

-“P’esque” is a thick quinoa with milk, sometimes topped cheese or with tomato and onion on top.

In addition to the traditional foods, I had the honor of eating at an exquisite vegan restaurant, Ali Pacha, with an incredibly sweet and amazing friend of a friend. There they used local foods and did vegan twists on typical foods too. It was great! Thank you, Gabriela!

 

Famous Footnotes

*”Paceños” are people from La Paz

**There are a lot of really cool things to do in La Paz besides the teleferico and eating, I just didn’t get a chance to check them all out. Stay tuned for a list of cool things to do in La Paz that I hope to do if I ever (when I) return!