Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Death Road No More!!!

The Yungas, subtropical zone has been a reprieve from high altitude for many travelers over the years. It is low-lying and receives ample warm rains. Although isolated, the Yungas assumed economic importance in the early 20th century as a major source of rubber and quinine. Coca, sugarcane, and coffee are also grown. Currently, with improved roads the region has seen a boom in growth & visitors, especially in the more accessible areas closer to La Paz, which have been developed into resorts.

On a personal note, I´ve been trekking the South American tropics for 15 years. And I love The Yungas! It´s a great Get-Away! Wonderful culture & good food! I decided to make a quick jaunt to Coroico, visit with old friends and buy coffee from elderly Dona Maria and her sister Celestina who produce some of the most aromatic coffee in the world. I also wanted a break from the altitude of La Paz (12,000ft) and to relax in one of my fave pueblos while siping passionfruit juice. The impulse of going has always been balanced with the logistics of how to get there. In the past, the Death Road was the only route. That is to say, using the only road which climbs to a summit (15,300 ft) and drops into the Amazon Basin (3,900 ft) in just the 40 miles from La Paz to Coroico! What scenary! Seems simple enough, yet it was always necessary to do a bit of reconnaissance. "Had localized rains destabilized the steep mountainsides? Had there been landslides? If so, how extreme? Can the road be cleared? Was it possible once cleared that a re-occurance or a slide elsewhere along the way could trap travelers in the tropical zone?"

All those concerns now swept away. The route has changed. A new road has been opened which avoids the most dangerous precipices and shortens travel time (two hours instead of the 3-4 hours). I bought a ticket with great anticipation. Blah but safe, the journey was non-discript. The two lane concrete road was interrupted just once with a small slide; crews were working diligently to clear the mess. Down to one lane through the rubble, pulses of traffic were flagged forward. Absolutely non-eventful after becoming accustomed to the 1 1/2 lanes with turnouts on the Death Road over the years.

I missed the waterfalls of the old road pounding vehicles as we inched under them
(as seen on Top Gear Program) and dramatic vistas (and the danger) but I shook the nostalgia. Really seems a shame that the "World´s Most Dangerous Road" has been relegated to Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking! Yet people from all over the world come to ride a mountian bike 40 miles dropping from 15,400ft to 3,600ft without peddling! Speaking to bikers at the bottom, in Yolosa, they used words like tired, dirty, stupendous and exhilarating! I think the smiles and laughter were endorsement enough. Next trip!

Once arriving at the new Bus Terminal, we took a taxi the short distance to our hotel up the hill. There´s a new taxi association that sets fares. No not much money really, just four times more then a taxi in the city. Evidently, with the new road a tourist economy
has arrived. Checking into the Hotel Esmeralda had always been a bit of a homecoming, being I´ve been staying there for 15 years. New man at the front desk (6 days working). I asked after the owners (out of the country). All new personnel in the dining area (a few weeks each) with the exception of Elvis, who remembered us from earlier trekks. All prices have shot up. Only overhead lights worked in our suite. The reading lamps either side of the bed were useless. One fixture broken, the other lacked a halogen bulb (no replacement in stock). Dinner was a ($5) raw, inedible pasta. Breakfast included; eggs and pancakes in cold chafing dishes without Sterno fire underneath. The cut tropical fruit & juices were rather good. But weak dishwater coffee in a coffee growing zone? It was explained that the coffee was organic and was not black, black like inferior coffees. Ridiculous! In the past, the hotel had been good yet "lack of attention to detail" has rendered Hotel Esmeralda a poor choice. Many come off the high altitude trekker trail and are relieved to rest in a tropical zone with ample oxygen. There are better options for showers and cocktails.

The Residential Kory, just off the main plaza is loud. The Hotel Gloria is faded.
Perhaps the poshest hotel in Coroico is Sol y Luna. Very reasonably priced cabañas w/ kitchen and bath en suite. Reservations recommended; I hadn´t one. Just outside of the pueblo, I inquired at the marvillous El Cafetal where I´ve stayed previously; booked solid, no rooms available. However, that didn´t stop us from having lunch. The owners Patrice & Dany are French and Chefs and their miracle is Souffle in the jungle. Also, an amazing well-rounded French & International Menu is offered, lounging at the pool is very restful, view from the hammocks incredible, and the beer cold. Highly recommended!

Without room at El Cafetal we decided to cut our stay short, one night instead of four
. Regardless, the Yungas offers much more then just Coroico. However, for the International Party Backpacker Scene, the tourist packed Coroico is still best. The party can easily go ´til Dawn! And you party with the Argentinos, Aussies, Israelis, Kiwis, Germans, Espanoles, etc.. then for those who´d like a jungle experience that provides local culture and wonderful vistas there are the pueblos of Chulumani, Caranavi, as well as, La Senda Verde, Eco-Resort & Animal Refuge . You´d be shocked to learn that Yungas hotel rooms are available at USD $7-$40 per night. Another highlight are the AfroBolivian Saya Folklore Presentations put on most anywhere in the region. These are amazing when open to the public.

All in all, life is good in the Yungas! Next year I´ll see you on a mountain-bike riding the "World´s Most Dangerous Road", because we want it!!!

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