In Guajará-mirim, the border town on the Brazilian side, there is no ferry available to transport the Land Cruiser to the Bolivian side of the river – where the border town is called Guayaramerím. Coen takes a passenger boat to arrange a ferry on the Bolivian side where he meets Carlos, a Colombian motorcyclist who has been waiting for two days for the ferry to cross because of one of these protests or strikes Bolivia is infamous for. Today is his lucky day, and ours too: the ferry plies again and one and a half hours later the Land Cruiser hits Bolivian soil.
Driving in Bolivia – Rain and Dust
In order to reach La Paz we have to drive 1000 kilometers of unpaved roads and the rains have started. We have heard only horror stories about this stretch so we are surprised, to say the least, to find ourselves on a good-quality laterite road which is quite doable, even during the tropical showers that hit us today. We cover a record distance of 420 kilometers.
Not sure what’s worse: rain or dust…
From rain we swap to dust. Extremes they are.
Riberalta is a center of Brazil nuts, or castanha, or almendra as they call them here. They are harvested in the forest and, in fact, this industry is a way to preserve the rainforest as these trees can’t be cultivated in a plantation. We try to visit a factory but the first is closed – the season is coming to its end.
At the second factory the manager needs permission from the owner, but we don’t feel like waiting in the tropical heat for an owner who may show up, but maybe not, and who may give permission, but maybe not. Furthermore, the sky is clear so it’s better to cover distance.
It feels good to be in Bolivia. The transformation from a clean, well-organized west Brazil to a chaotic, dusty but lively Bolivia is marked. In the beginning it feels a bit intimidating. For example, when we pass a nut-merchant I am curious and I’d like to see it from nearby. Yet I see and feel so many people staring at us, which feels intimidating and makes me feel like an intruder.
However, as I have experienced so many times before during our travels, it is a question of getting out of that safe haven of the Land Cruiser and walking up to them, meeting them and learning about their business. Instead of the distant looks filled with distrust, faces are transformed by smiles and the people radiate pride while they happily welcome us and show us what they are doing.
In Guayaramerím are many rickshaws, motorcycles to which a contraption is attached to carry three passengers. In Riberalta transport mostly consists of motorcycles. The way they buzz in swarms, veering from left to right, is reminiscent of Vietnam. Four persons on a motorcycle is quite common too.
Petrol is for sale at gas stations but the motorcyclists prefer the quick service at a road stall where the petrol is sold in plastic, one-liter bottles. Alongside the road wooden platforms serve as workshops to repair or wash cars and motorcycles – any form of sewage system is conspicuously absent.
The sun leaves the sky once more and instead we get rain, lots of it. At a remote gas station we seek shelter waiting for the worst of the tropical storm to pass. Rain enters the Land Cruiser in different spots: Coen’s feet are permanently showered, a rag lies in front of the window to stop the water from entering there while another rag absorbs the water that enters the glove compartment.
Not much later we encounter a traffic jam. Cows. For as far as we can see. Two cowboys motion us to stop and Coen switches off the engine. The cowboys use their horses to guide the cows through a narrow opening so they can be counted. There are 800 of them and they are on their way to Riberalta. They have covered 8 kilometers and have another 100 to go.
Magic of the Countryside
A laterite road leads into the fields until we find shelter behind bushes and trees and have become invisible from the road. A good place to camp where the Land Cruiser can’t sink down in mud in case of a long night of rain.
We sit outside to witness a glorious sunset and enjoy our evening concert: over the entire width of the field in front of us fireflies dance, filling the sky. The only time we have ever seen so many fireflies was in Malaysia. Together with the humming of the nocturnal insects and the croaking of the frogs they provide an excellent evening program.
A day later the flat countryside changes and we begin a steep ascent up the mountains. It is not easy to find a flat place in the mountains suitable to spend the night. When we wake up rain is pounding down on the Land Cruiser. We are hemmed in by clouds. What a depressing sight. Fortunately, after a fifteen-minute drive the clouds start to dissolve and allow us to catch glimpses of the still tropical surroundings.
In the valley patches of drifting mist create a mystical ambience, as we witnessed in the Himalayas of Bhutan. At that time I exclaimed that Bhutan surely was the entrance to Shangri-La, but now I am not so sure anymore, maybe it’s Bolivia.
The Death Road to La Paz
These verdant mountains west of Yucumo are among the most beautiful stretches we have ever driven. Vast rainforests remain untouched and because of the mountainous region the immensity of these woods is overwhelming; the views of endless rainforest stretched on mountain slopes reach much farther than when driving through a flat area, where you only get to see the edges of a rainforest. Only when we get closer to La Paz have parts of the forest been cleared for agriculture. We are too far away to see what has been planted there, maybe it is coca but I don’t know yet what these plants look like.
We see road signs with a new instruction: Conserve su izquierda – Drive on the left side. We follow a narrow, unpaved road that winds through a region with a vertical rock wall on our left side and a sheer drop on our right. This is the infamous Death Road. Nowadays, part of the Death Road, between La Paz and Coroico is mostly used by tourists cycling down. All other traffic is led over an about ten-year-old, more or less asphalted highway around another mountain range. This particular part of the Death Road, however, coming south from Rurrenabaque to Coroico, is still as narrow, unpaved, slippery and dangerous as always.
There is little space for maneuvering and we are impressed by the quietness and discipline of the Bolivian truck drivers and bus drivers. Maybe they have learned something from all the little crosses that have been placed at regular intervals on a nasty corner. It is not difficult to image how men, drunk or speeding, lose control on these mountainous roads and crash to their death. By driving on the left side the downhill-drivers drive right along the edge of the ravine, which enables them to better calculate how much maneuvering space they have.
Suddenly La Paz looms into view and the sun reappears – it feels like a welcome. The mountain slopes of this city of 1.5 million inhabitants are crammed with red brick houses. La Paz was built in a canyon, where it started as a village near the river but expanded until there was no space left but on the steep slopes. We don’t get much chance to really absorb the scene, we have to traverse this city from north to south, straight through the center.
South of La Paz lies “Oberland”, a hotel run by a Swiss and known among overlanders as thé place to stay when visiting La Paz. The parking lot is unappealing without shade and doesn’t come cheap (to Bolivian standards) but the we can use the hot shower and col swimming pool. This is not a place to be picky because the steep slopes of La Paz make it more or less impossible to find a decent place to camp.
Wow, 1000 kilometers in 3 days – considering the rainy season we had expected we would have needed a week. Unsurprisingly fatigue quickly overtakes us. Exhausted and suffering from the sudden difference in altitude (we are now at 3200 meters) we quickly call it a day.