Beyond Bolivia’s Death Road

Eight Incredible Places in Bolivia that aren’t North Yungas

‘Death Road’ (and one that is)

Landlocked and lacking the tourists draw cards compared to its Pacific-facing neighbours, Ecuador and Peru, Bolivia ranks behind Guyana and Suriname as the least visited country in
South America. Admittedly, there’s no Machu Picchu equivalent in Bolivia (with its accompanying 1.5 million tourists annually). Nor does it possess a great wonder of nature as unique as Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands. And it isn’t just your stock-standard tourists who routinely skip past Bolivia on their Southern American sojourns.

Plenty of adventure motorcycle tourers use the Pan-American Highway as a rough route to follow while traversing the Americas. Rather inconveniently for Bolivia, the world famous
Highway 1 completely bypasses the entire country, crossing straight into Chile from Peru. Understandably, tourist infrastructure in Bolivia remains comparatively basic, and the country remains one of Latin America’s poorest. On the upside, Bolivia-bound travellers diverging from the “Gringo Trail” will find a refreshing absence of annoying crowds of tourists, along with the inevitable touts and inflated prices.

Bolivia – More than just Mountain Biking and S**tloads of Salt

If there are two things foreigners know about Bolivia, one is that it’s home to the infamous Carretera de los Yungas, or “the Death Road” (cue dramatic voice over from every “World’s
Most Dangerous Road” TV show). The second thing? Salt. In fact, it’s salt you can see from space, so vast are the crystal plains of the enormous Salar de Uyuni salt pan. If you’re imaging a vast sodium desert and are getting the impression that Bolivia is mostly, well… flat, you’d be very much mistaken. At roughly 3,650m elevation, La Paz is the world’s highest capital city, perched atop a mist-shrouded plateau in the Andes. The Eastern Andes form a sweeping arc across the country, dividing it into three climatic zones. North of La Paz, the Andes enormous peaks and canyons stretch to the borders of Brazil, Ecuador and Peru.

Beneath the western slopes of the Andes is a wildlife-rich tract of the Amazon Rainforest, while the arid salt plains stretch across southwestern Bolivia into Chile. If you’re riding South America, don’t skip Bolivia. Seriously, don’t. In a rush? Slow down. It’s one of the continent’s most unmissable, with gorgeous Colonial towns, incredible mountain, rainforest and desert scenery and some truly incomparable riding. On a budget? Relax, Bolivia is one of the cheapest countries in South America. Here, you can visit the Amazon, Andean volcanic parks and cool Colonial cities for a fraction of the price compared to its more popular neighbours. Check out these beautiful Bolivian highlights and be convinced.

1. Salar de Uyuni

Bolivia has at least one record-breaking claim to fame up its sleeve. The Salar de Uyuni, a seemingly endless, wind and sunburnt plain at 3,650 elevation is the world’s largest salt plain or playa. The evaporated remains of a colossal prehistoric lake, covered coarse, crystalline salt covers some10,000 sq km. Pure white, looking almost like snow from a distance, the salt crystals blinking like gemstones baked beneath the desert sun, However, the ‘Bolivian ice field’ isn’t always completely visible, due to dramatic seasonal shifts. The region’s rain occurs almost entirely during November to April, usually short bursts but with heavier downpours in January and March. After a good soaking, the pearly-white surface becomes overlaid with a clear liquid sheen. This shallow “lake” acts like natural mirror to the backdrop of the Andes, reflecting its rugged cliffs and snow-strewn summits. The appearance of water also attracts pink armies of flamingos who flock from the coast to roost relatively protected in-land. Salar’s photogenic lake and seasonal wildlife are a major drawcard, but if you’re top priority is adventure, summer is when the Solar heats up as a playground for motor-powered high- speed hijinks. When the water evaporates, the salt plain’s beautifully barren land is exposed, cracked into distinctly hexagonal shapes that stretch to the horizon. Covering almost 12,000 sq km, you can cover hours of ground tearing along the surface on a suitably kitted-up touring bike, dirt racer or ATV – without leaving a single tourist group in your wake. Running out of a straight drag line is never a problem! Unsurprisingly, several land speed record attempts have been made, and broken here.

2. Potosi

We love La Paz, Bolivia’s modest (relative to other South American metropolises at least) mountaintop capital – but the city of 1.8 million deserves an article of its own. While La Paz (elevation 3,650m) likes to claim being the highest urbanised city in the world, it’s in fact, the smaller, rather more charming city of Potosi (population 190,000) actually beats it quite a margin, sitting 4,090m elevation. Spurred on by a discovery of alluvial silver deposits in the region, the Spanish Conquistadors shook off Potosi’s bone-chilling wind and weather, staking out a settlement region in 1545 and quickly enslaving the native population, forced to do the dirty, dangerous work of stripping their land of its mineral riches. By the 17th century, Potosi supplied almost half the world’s silver. It even enjoyed a brief stint 17th century stint as the world’s wealthiest city. The boon paid for churches, cathedrals, mansions and administrative buildings, making Potosi perhaps Bolivia’s loveliest Colonial city, and earning it a UNESCO World Heritage listing. After five hundred years of relentless exploitation starved most of the mines of silver, the Spanish settlers simply fled the town, leaving hundreds of indigenous workers to fend for themselves. The precious metals that remain lie locked inside Cerro Rico, a bizarre bald hill casting a cone-shaped shadow over the settlement’s squat-sized cottages. Thousands of local and migrant miners still scrape out a living here, seemingly unprotected by safety regulations of any enforceable sort. Non-claustrophobic tourists can explore Cerro Rico on a fascinating tour, where the miners’ daily duties hazards are frighteningly apparent.

3. Sucre

Sucre was granted World Heritage status for the Colonial craftsmanship of its pristine historical centre. Most people think of La Paz (Bolivia’s official seat of government) as the city’s capital, but
much smaller Sucre is in fact the country’s official capital. With its signature whitewashed buildings, the main plaza of the “White City” is exceptionally pleasant, flanked by the Catedral Metropolitana, Liberty Building and the excellent Museo del Toro. From the bell tower of Sucre’s stunning Convento de San Felipe Neri, climb up the stairs for a magical view of the white-walled city. Despite its capital city status, Sucre has a small town air with a touch of the cosmopolitan, offering the best dining and nightlife outside La Paz. TIP: Every Sunday, an hour south east of Sucre, the village of Tarbabuco is where indigenous villagers gather to set up stalls of local foodstuffs, textiles, woodwork and traditional clothing, as well as authentic handicrafts for tourists keen to experience a authentic Andean marketplace.

4. Torotoro National Park

Bolivia has five national parks, each of them astoundingly unique. There’s Amboro at the crossroads of the Andes, the northern Chaco and the Amazon Basin, Kaa Iya, one the last refuges of the majestic jaguar, and Samboro, where snow-capped volcanoes and bubbling hot springs sprout from the sweeping altiplano. But, as this is a motorcycling blog, we’ve got to hand the prize to Torotoro as Bolivia’s number one parquet nacional for adventure riders. In the Western Andes, between 2,000m and 3,000 altitude, this is an ancient land of serpentine canyons, bizarre rock formations and. cliffside caves. The Jurassic landscape is all the more appropriate when you consider over 3,500 perfectly preserved dinosaur footprints have formed 120-million-year-old trails inside the park’s sun scorched plains. Torotoro lies in a rock-strewn valley, interspersed by craggy peaks, caves, emerald pools and waterfalls, best viewed from the top of spectacular amber hued Tortoro Canyon. 300m deep, the canyon’s walls and floors are home to endangered Andean condors, and scarlet macaws.Torotoro should be among Bolivia’s tourist hotspots – but there’s a hitch. Public transport from La Paz is a slow, painful, slightly terrifying two-day affair. Of course, that inconvenience is obliterated when you’ve got a bike instead of a rickety bus to rely on. In fact, the 140 km road from Cochambamba represents unadulterated unpaved ecstasy. Alternating between half-finished pavement, rough gravel and pure dust (with the odd water crossing), the road whips its way around the mountainside, one ridiculous bend after another.

5. Tiwanaku

While no ancient city in the Americas compares to Machu Picchu, the mighty Incan Empire may not have been so grand if it hadn’t been preceded by Tiwanaku. Now a World Heritage Site, the ruins of the once monumental city of the Tiwanuku civilization sits 3,900m above sea level, flanked by mountain ranges to the west and Lake Titicaca to the south. Between 600 and 800 AD, Tiwanuku’s powers extended across the southern Andes, and the population swelled to an estimated 70,000 residents. However, persistent drought (and it’s surmised, the odd violent uprising) brought the city to its knees. By 1,000 AD, the most important pre-Incan Empire in the Andes was no more. While a succession of raids, looting and botched excavations mean much of the city
remains buried or destroyed, an excursion to the ancient capital is still fascinating, and with relatively few tourists, it’s easy to imagine yourself as a ghostly ruler, looking down on the desolation of a long-abandoned kingdom. Skilled craftsmen and engineers, just how the Tiwanuku hauled up the 25-tonne rocks that form the city’s fortified walls remains a mystery.

6. Lake Titicaca

The Incas regarded Titicaca, South America’s largest lake as the birthplace of their civilization. A vast, expanse of sapphire blue freshwater sprinkled with green and gold islets, it plunges to a depth of 280m. The surface lies at 3,812m, straddling the altiplano of Peru and Bolivia. Lake Titicaca is one of Peru’s flagship attractions, and the number of sightseers, shops, restaurants and souvenir spruikers reflects its popularity. Since Bolivia welcomes a fraction of the number of visitors compared with Peru, it’s the Bolivian section of the lake is immeasurably more serene and far less commercialised. The Bolivian south-east side of the lake is also regarded as more picturesque than the Peruvian side, with the snow-capped spine of the Cordillera Real creating a mesmerising backdrop beyond the eastern shore. The jumping off point for Lake Titicaca in Bolivia is the ragtag tourist pitstop town, Copacabana. From here you can boat out to the largest of the lake’s 40 islands, Isla del Sol. While Yumani village on the south end of the island is one of Titicaca’s most developed population centres, there’s no motorised traffic. Instead, a network of rocky trails traverse the island’s sandy beaches and archaeological sites, best dating to pre-Inca Tiwanaku culture.

7. Maddi National Park

Despite the claims of a certain crazy Brazilian nationalist politician, the Amazon Rainforest is not Brazil’s exclusive plaything. The world’s largest rainforest spans eight South American countries, including north west Bolivia, where Maddi National Park protects around 11,200 sqm of the Amazon, from the foothills of the Andes to its wetlands, rivers, rolling grasslands and tangled vegetation. One of the most biodiverse places on earth, Bolivia’s few remaining indigenous Amazonian populations still take refuge within the tropical rainforest. Today, Maddi is establishing itself as an eco-tourism alternative to the more well-trodden Peruvian parks across the border. Eco-lodges offer nature observation walks beneath the forest canopy and provide a glimpse into the culture and lifestyle of the Amazon’s indigenous guardians. Bring your best hiking kit and wet weather gear and be prepared for some challenging terrain as you search for medicinal plants, stare up at a vine-swinging sloth, or catching a glimpse of a jaguar, puma, pink river dolphin, or one of the roughly 1,000 bird species.

8. Corioco

Two hours from La Paz in the Yungas district, the small town of Coroico sits on the shoulders of the mist-shrouded Cerro Uchumach, gazing out over a panorama of lush rivers and canyons, cloud-covered mountain peaks, patchwork farms and villages and coffee plantations. Overlooking the compact little town and misty mountains beyond, Coroico’s guesthouse can
be a welcome respite after a week’s adventuring – or can serve as a base for some of Bolivia’s most hardcore adventure activities. A modest tourism industry has sprung up around nature and adventure here -– hikes to hidden waterfalls, abseiling, canyoning and climbing for the cliff crawlers, and for Coroico marks the start of the infamous original North Yungas Road or “death road” which winds its way through dense forest and high mountain passes on its way to La Paz. While the old Yungas Road has become practically disused by local traffic, the daredevil desire to tackle it on two wheels has made it one of Bolivia’s bucket list attractions.

9. Carretera de los Yungas – Death’s Road

Cut into the side of the Cordillera Oriental Range is a zig-zagging gravel goat track linking the Andean capital of La Paz with the Yungas region in the Bolivian Amazon. The single lane North Yungas Road has earned international infamy as “the most dangerous road on earth”. Its 60km length includes 29 hairpins, a heart-stopping 3,500m of descent, and almost ever-present rain and fog. A mere 3.2 wide road straddles one side the mountain, while the other side sheer precipices plunge up to a kilometre below into a graveyard of scattered wreckage. Before a paved, dual lane alternative opened in 2006, landslips and collisions claimed dozens, if not hundreds of lives every year. These days, the road is rarely used by locals, which is fortunate, as the traffic is now primarily pushbike tourists in matching vests and helmets, and the odd motorcycle explorer. If you’re attempting North Yungas on a motorcycle, solid off-roading skills are a must to manage the precariously slippery surfaces, drenched in parts by cliffside waterfalls that tumble on to the road below. The climb from the steamy foothills of Yolosa to the stark, windswept La Cumbre Pass (4,650m) is thrillingly beautiful. The mist sometimes periodically lifts to reveal breathtaking views over the altiplano and emerald canopy of the Amazon Rainforest.

Written by: Fiona Davies (extreme pillion rider and adventure travel writer)


2 thoughts on “Beyond Bolivia’s Death Road

  1. Michael Jones says:

    I am now in Peru..Struck….With Bike and ready to come and would consider your assistance and perhaps a tour.
    Free to leave now if you know a way across the border.
    Michael Jones

    • Mike Thomsen says:

      Hi Michael

      I don’t know what the local rules are for Peru and border crossings there at the moment. We fly into Bolivia and get bikes locally. All you need to visit Bolivia now is a negative PCR test. I’m sure things are different for land borders. I suggest you contact Lars at Perumotors who just went from Peru to do a tour in Mexico, so you should be able to leave but might have to put your bike in storage until things get better.

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