La Paz to Konani: Dust and sweat in the Yungas (and yes, we rode the Death Road)

La Paz is a hard place to leave, but vaguely southward progress was calling – to the barren but beautiful Altiplano (volcanoes and llamas, two of my favourite things) or to descend into the lushness of the Yungas (coca plantations, villages, warmth), that was the question. We had our sights firmly on the famous, and famously harsh, Lagunas area in the south-west a little later so down we decided to plummet, to enjoy the warmth and gorge ourselves silly on the abundance of low-altitude produce. Some compelling route write-ups and options from the masterful Pikes on Andes by Bike and While Out Riding sealed the deal.

If you ride a bike in Bolivia it’s inevitable that you’ll be asked, frequently, whether you have ridden or are going to ride the famous Death Road. The thought of paying to cycle a hyped up section of road seemed outrageous to me at this point, but I was intrigued regardless. The lure is strong. In the end our fantastic route to the Death Road felt more treacherous and adventurous than the Death Road itself, which was nevertheless a good time. After a night in Coroico we left the gringo trail behind once more. The rest of the route took a little more out of us than we’d anticipated, largely thanks to the heat. We Wellingtonians don’t know how to respond to heat, other than to seek hipster craft beer and shelter.

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The Yungas is hot and dusty, the light is forever hazy, and for the first time some of these days of riding left me feeling filthy. Camping was a rarity with accommodation easy enough to come by, as the thought of soiling my sacred, clean, off-bike clothes and sleeping bag made me want to shed a tear into my dusty hanky. These Yungas climbs are nothing like the Peruvian epics where a climb is a slog that you settle into for the day, before descending a joyous, epic 1000 or 2000 metres. Here you climb 400m, crest the hill and look across the valley to the next town, an orange cluster of buildings perched in the haze atop an equally high hill. Below, the road winds its way down to a murky river, then scribbles its way up green-brown slopes on the other side. At times a few towns can be spied fading into the distance – beautiful and demoralising. And so you roll down, and climb up, scull a litre of fizzy pop in an attempt to find momentary relief from the heat, hate yourself for sculling a litre of fizzy pop, then repeat. (I recommend Coka Quina if you can find it – all the satisfaction of the usual staples, but with far less sugar.) Plenty of hearty holas, waves, women harvesting coca leaves and fruit, and carpets of coca laid out to dry line the route winding south.

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Our week detour through the Yungas creeps closer to two with the heat sapping our energy, a cold, and a navigational hiccup. Early one morning we descend 700m from the town of Coripata to a river, gleefully remarking what a killer hill it would be if one were unfortunate enough to have to tackle it the other way. Surprised to find it unbridged, we spend several hours exploring the sludgy river for ways across to a road we see no proof even exists. Eventually we concede defeat and retreat back to Coripata in the blazing midday sun, back to the same guesthouse with its vibes of faded glory and half-filled green swimming pool, with embarrassed mutterings of ‘no hay carretera alla…’ (there is no road there…). Our freshly washed clothes returned once again to their usual brown state. We check seamlessly back into the same room, which had been cleaned in the meantime, and by that I mean our old sheets had been straightened out and everything. A whopping 24 kilometers were covered on the round trip and we celebrate/commiserate with a newfound favourite – homemade vege chili/stew (whole tomatoes boiled down with fresh veges and plenty of spices) stuffed into freshly-baked, bready, cheese empanadas.

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Any way you choose out of the Yungas will involve a hefty climb. Our route from Quime to Konani climbed 2000m over a 4715m pass, through dense fog, through rain which turned to hail as we got higher, snow as we got even higher, then a satisfying moment on the pass when the clouds parted to reveal the snow dusted peaks we’d been missing. Hello again Altiplano, a little distance certainly made our hearts grow even fonder…

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Route

La Paz – old road to Abandoned Unduavi (below current Unduavi) – Death Road to Coroico – Coripata – Chulumani – Irupana – Circuata – Licoma – Inquisivi – Quime – Konani – Oruro

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