After a bit of rest in La Paz, exploring up and down the steep hills and taking the cable gondola to the top of the plateau above the city to have a look around, we packed up to head out of town to the northeast. We were headed toward Coroico, which has become the base for anyone wanting to experience the old “Death Road.” This was once a narrow, cliff-side dirt road connecting La Paz with points north. We would follow it, and spend time in a lower, warmer climate beyond, to soak up a bit of heat for a while. Friends of ours had stayed in Coroico a few years back, and recommended a hostel that had us huffing and puffing as we packed our gear down about 50 steep steps to our little cabaña, and parked our bikes up a hill across the road. But we were repaid with a great balcony view over the treetops and across the broad valley, where we could see the highway we had just ridden dropping down, down, down the mountainside into our area.
The Death Road is a one-lane dirt and rock road, wider in some places, narrower and rougher in others, easily negotiated by riders with moderate dual-sport skills. It runs generally downhill to the northeast toward Coroico, with the mountain on your right and the cliff on your left going down. But when I imagined two big trucks or buses trying to get by each other going opposite directions, I could easily see why this was the Death Road before the paved highway bypassing it was built. The custom is to pass on the left on this road. This puts the drivers on the outside, and so the one nearest the edge will be better able to judge where he was in relation to the edge of the road better. In some places that edge drops off, sometimes steeply downhill, and sometimes straight down, for hundreds of meters. There are big memorial markers along its length where particularly grisly accidents occurred. We learned that the road, which is spoken of as strictly one-way now, is actually still a two-way road, but in the morning there are hordes of tour-group bicyclists that like to coast down from the top. Once the bicycles start flowing down, the locals set up at least two stations to collect local “road fees” from them, giving out very official looking tickets, all totally illegal but tolerated. I met a German fellow on an R1100GS at our hostel who told me about all this one-way stuff. His name is Florian, and he had ridden it the day before, on the way down to Coroico. On his recommendation he and I waited until about 4 in the afternoon, and headed up the road the “wrong” way, while Jalene relaxed in town. In the afternoon it was pleasantly empty, and we were able to stop and take photos all we wanted. Small pickups and cars occasionally came by going both ways, as people do live along some parts of this road. No toll-ropes to be seen, and a very enjoyable afternoon ride along a super-scenic and historic road section. When Jalene and I rode it together, following the “rules”, we ended up amongst bicycles, lots of them along with their attendant vehicles as well as some crazy ATV riders. We were both very nervous with them in front, beside, and behind us at times, as they were trying to coast as fast as they could along a road where a mistake could get you killed. If you come to the La Paz area, you must do this road, but I’d encourage those on motos to ride this road, up or down, in the afternoon when it is empty.
We stayed for 5 nights in Coroico, and enjoyed a beautiful view across a huge valley of the mountains to the north and the road leading down, down, down into the valley we were in. At night we could see long trains of cars and trucks coming down the mountain switchbacks in an endless procession. We were in a very steep country here, and on our fourth night, we noticed a small grass and brush fire on a hillside opposite us. It was already dark outside, and we could not easily tell what was between the fire and us, or how fast it could reach us if it spread up hill in our direction. The ground was quite steep below us, and the trees and foliage very thick and dry. As we watched, the fire spread to our right and down hill quite steadily, but we heard no alarm response nor did we see any evidence of anyone trying to quench the flames. Soon the hostal lost power, the next-door hospital clinic fired up it’s generators, and we packed our bags up just in case we had to run for it. After watching for a couple of hours, we went to bed. I woke up and looked out several times, but heard no commotion in the town around us, so decided that if the locals weren’t alarmed, maybe I shouldn’t be. In the morning we could see that between the charred area and us, there was a low rise and second watercourse, which we had not seen in the dark. The fire had burned downhill slowly to a creek, and stopped. The flames we had observed in the night was the fire on its way up to the ridgetop beyond, but no further, leaving a large section of the hillside blackened, but no real property damage appears to have occurred. Next year’s pasture crop on that hillside is sure to benefit.
We had a nice 5-day break here in Coroico, but soon enough it was time to depart and head south into other areas of Bolivia. We rode back to La Paz, and this time I was able to see the terrain from a different direction. What had seemed a gentle descent down into the Coroico area now was revealed as a very steep climb out, with long sections between switchbacks (super-fun!). We could look straight up at the road as it crossed above us in long, sweeping arcs. Seeing the underside of a crumbly Bolivian concrete bridge you will be crossing in a couple of minutes, well, you just learn to expand the “adventure” attitude. Once back on the ridgetop, we took a break at the short tunnel that drills through a very steep mountaintop, and came to appreciate just how hard transiting this area can be. Super-steep mountains all around us, it’s amazing how a two-lane road wide enough for trucks can be punched through here – one is able to easily comprehend why the Death Road lasted as long as it did before this bypass was finally constructed. If you are coming over into this area from La Paz, keep an eye out where you first top out over the pass – you will see a dirt road heading down below you. I imagine that this is the original pathway into the valley below. It would be fun someday to do this section on a nice, light little dirt bike. This was a time when my F650 Dakar felt big and ponderous, too much for explorations like this. Oh, to be traveling on a Yamaha WR250, or even better down here (for parts and repair), a Honda 250 Tornado. Then we’d have some fun!
We crossed back through La Paz, and spent a night at our Muslim friend’s hostel again before heading southeast toward the heart of Bolivia. The mountains around Potosi and Sucre were our goal, as well as the big Salar de Uyuni. Leaving La Paz, aiming ouirselves toward the center of the country, we started out on a big divided highway, filled not with cars and trucks, but crowded on either side by market stalls, so that all traffic was constricted down the center lanes. This traffic/market hybrid jam lasted for many kilometers until finally it cleared out and the road opened up before us. In all the craziness I couldn’t pull the camera out to get the best sign I had seen yet. In front of a gas station, it showed a cartoon drawing making it graphically clear that if you urinate on the ground around that station, a large pair of scissors would be used, gentlemen, to castrate you. No words, but perfect clarity.
Once out of the city and rolling, the roads through Bolivia are simply incredible. Western Bolivia, in the area of the Altiplano, is a very high, dry landscape. The altitudes vary from 3-4,000 meters (~10-13,000’) while traveling the roads, and the area lies east of a wall of Andean peaks, sheltering it from most precipitation. Now we were rolling along on fairly flat ground, with low scrub bushes and grasses growing on the open ground. It’s a high desert here, and there is nothing to stop the wind and weather. After a night in Oruro, we continued south paralleling Lago Poopo, a large, shallow lake where you can see the salt and sediment deposits in the satellite view on Google Maps. South of Poopo lie the great salt flats: Salar de Coipasa and Salar de Uyuni. But first, we wanted to detour into the mountains to the mining city of Potosi, located high above the Altiplano in the Cordillera Central, or central range of the Andes. At an altitude of 4,100 meters (13,400’) we had a cold ride to get there, and were also very glad the 8-liter plastic gas jugs we each carry were full (more on that later).
From Oruro, our day’s ride didn’t look all that difficult, but we were to have an introduction to Bolivian mountain weather this day. We started out just fine, with clear skies, riding south on a good paved road to Challapata, and a hot lunch at a roadside cafeteria. There was a load of tourists on a big high-clearance off-road bus there as well, and we enjoyed chatting with them. The company is Dragoman, and they specialize in taking you much further into the “outback” areas than the regular bus routes. They camp along the way, and passengers take turns sharing kitchen and camp chores, so it’s a bit like a rolling hostel. A chat with the two driver-guides revealed that the company does tours in many places in the world. The routes are often very long, and passengers can begin and end at places they choose they choose along the route, or go the whole way. It looks like the kind of bus tour I’d take!
After lunch, our route turned up a valley, and began to climb into the mountains. The temperature dropped, but the skies remained clear, at least for a while. We topped out over several ridges taking us above the snowline. Stopping for a pee break along the road, it was silent except for the cold wind, and I could look around and see angry storm clouds that we had been skirting were now moving directly into our path. It’s often hard to know this, as the road tends to dodge to the right or left every time it rounds a mountain or ridgeline, but this was too close to be mistaken about. We were in for it. Within about ten minutes, we were riding with snow on the road in cold, drenching rain and sleet. Fortunately, the Dragoman bus had passed us at our pee stop, and we now had two nice tandem tire tracks of clear, wet pavement to ride in for about 30 minutes, until we descended out of the snow. Not long before gaining Potosi, we came into a town with a gas station. Tarapaya, I think it was. It was still cold and raining, and we were thankful to pull under the pump shelter. Problem was, the power was out and the pumps were not running. No sweat, we dumped the fuel from our jugs into the bikes, at which point of course the power came back on and we were able to top off. Still, having that gas in those jugs meant no panicky feeling anywhere, as our tanks were pretty dry. We started making a habit of filling at least one jug whenever we had the least doubt about fuel availability ahead. Although we never really got into an emergency situation, it was a good feeling to know we had that extra gas along. We did this in Patagonia at times, as well. (I’ll tell you a little more about Bolivian fuel-buying adventures in the next story.)
A note here for long-distance folks and practical cheapskates like me: The upper third of a clear plastic water bottle, cut off at the fattest point, makes the best funnel for pouring gas. You can see right down through them with perfect focus, and watch the level as it fills. No more “It’s full!” spillovers. Best of all, they are free, available in any ditch or garbage pile near you. Bring your knife.
Riding above 4,000 meters (13,000’) in hard rain, with snow on the ground, way out in the Bolivian Andes, with no help anywhere near really gets your imagination running. A flat tire? That’s workable. An engine failure? Much more difficult. An accident? Let’s not go there. These are the times that keep me on top of the bike maintenance when we stop for the night. We spent a lot of money on good gear and equipment, and in these conditions I am so thankful for it. We arrived in Potosi in the cold rain, found a hostel using iOverlander, and though we were shivering and cold, we were relatively dry and safe. We unloaded stuff, lubed the chains, and put the bikes to bed. Rooms here are equipped with thick, heavy wool and alpaca blankets, and after finding a hot meal nearby, we were oh-so-glad to burrow in underneath them. We dozed off dreaming of sunshine in the morning on the ride to Uyuni, and the largest salt flat on earth.