Coroico is a small town in the Yungas Mountains. It is also famous for being the end point of 2 of the worst roads in the world, the “Death Road” being one of them.
The Death Road was named such because there were so many people who lost their lives in the building of the road. Mostly it was prisoners from Paraguay who were forced to work. Now it is also known by that name due to the dangerous conditions of the road.
The drive into Coroico took us via “the new road”. It is paved but is a winding steep road with many tunnels. We heard someone say that the new road is now equally as dangerous as the old one, as now all the terrible drivers take the new road. We found that to be the case, as many crazy bus drivers drive too fast and take unnecessary risks.
Coroico itself is perched on a high cliff overlooking a valley. The roads in and around the city are very steep. We did not find the town to be very welcoming, and we got the feeling that the local people did not like tourists. We stayed one night and decided to move on the following day.
“The Death Road” is the old road that stretches for 31 miles/68 kms between La Paz and Coroico. It is said to be the worst road in the world. It is only wide enough in parts for one vehicle to drive, 3.2 meters wide, and no guardrails. It is unpaved, not well maintained, and has steep drop offs of over 600 meters. (2000 feet) Statistics say that 200-300 people die on the road every year. The road weaves through beautiful countryside. Since the new road has been built, the old road is less used. It is now a major tourist attraction, with tour groups running bicycle tours down the road.
Driving the death road had been on Mike’s bucket list for the trip. Mike had talked to many locals who reported the road not to be dangerous, especially if you drove up the road, because you got to stay to the inside of the road against the mountain. Also if you waited until after the cyclists completed the tours there was less traffic coming in the opposite direction. I, on the other hand, was focused on all the negative reports, and had developed a real fear of completing the trip. So initially we decided to take the new road back to La Paz. However this road was closed for 4 hours of road works, so we headed to the “Death Road”.
We waited for 2 hours while the tour groups completed the route, chatting to the riders as they came down. Then we took off- me holding my breath.
The road was a challenge in parts, and if we had been going down the road with me on the outside near the cliff edge my fear level would have been justified. However the journey was not as bad as my mind had conjectured.
When you come across vehicles coming the other way you do have to be careful and find a place that is wider to pass. There are crosses and memorials by the road as reminders of the danger if you don’t.
The journey was incredible and we were in a variety of climates throughout the journey. We were in clouds and misty fog for a large part of the way.
Mike was happy that we had completed the journey, a challenge but definitely doable. I was glad we had done it too, and that I had faced my fear. It was nowhere near as bad as my mind had imagined.
Travelling for a year is an amazing experience. Hopefully our blog illustrates the diversity of the scenery, the culture and the experience.
Even though we are miles away from home, we still can’t escape from responsibility. There are still bills to be paid, mail to be received, and banking issues to be sorted. In these times, some things can be done online, but with unreliable Internet connections this is not always an option. We could not do this trip without the support of friends and family. The little things people help with can mean so much.
We wanted to take this opportunity to thank our friends Elizabeth and Tom, who are always there when we need some help. They open their home to us to provide a place to stay during our transition times. Liz is collecting our mail and taking care of many of our business issues. We could not do this trip without their support. Thank you!
La Paz was our next destination after our amazing trip across the Laguna Route and the Salar de Uyuni. As you will know from past blog entries, Priscilla had been having some problems. We had heard through the overlander grapevine of an amazing Swiss-Bolivian mechanic, Ernesto Hug, who is the guru of mechanics for 4x4 vehicles. It had always been our intention to have Ernesto work on Priscilla at this half way point of our trip, but with recent issues it had become even more of a priority.
La Paz, the capitol city of Bolivia is home to 1.4 million people. From our last trip 17 years ago, we remember it as being an interesting and bizarre city. The city is literally built in a valley surrounded by volcanoes and very high mountains. The city over the years has crept upwards, now extending up the sides of the valley. The airport is the highest airport in the world at ~ 5000 meters. The rest of the city lies between 3200 meters and 4600 meters. The wealthier you are, the lower in the city you live, as it is a more temperate climate. In recent years, the city has built 3 telefericos or cable car systems, which transport people from the city below to various stops on the way to El Alto, the upper suburb. It is a cheap ride at less than 50 cents one way and a lot of local people use it as a means of transport to and from the city center.
Driving in La Paz is a real test of your driving skills. Not only are the roads steep and curving, but also traffic rules are really non-existent. With the help once again of ioverlander we were able to follow GPS tracking on our ipad to find Ernesto’s. It was a stressful drive as we had concerns about Priscilla, about our brakes and with our heavy load it would not be easy to stop. Mike had his hand on the handbrake all the way in, just in case. He did an amazing job of weaving in and out of traffic, and of anticipating the crazy moves of other drivers.
When we arrived at Ernesto’s the workshop was all shut up and no one was answering the bell. We had emailed Ernesto earlier in the week but had no response. Thinking it may be siesta time we waited. We were very lucky to catch Ernesto driving out to an appointment. They were actually not working that day. He informed us that they would not be able to work on Priscilla until Tuesday. This was now Friday. Ernesto kindly opened up the workshop, and like we had read offered for us to stay in the workshop area. We were so relieved, as finding a place to park and stay would have been very difficult.
So, Ernesto’s workshop became our home for 10 days. There was only a toilet, no shower, but we had a water source. That week we literally camped out in our roof top tent in the mechanics workshop. Most of the time we slept in the vehicle when it was jacked up, amongst other cars that were being worked on. We would pack up the tent as the workers arrived and would be eating breakfast on our chairs in the parking lot as they began work.
During that week, Ernesto and his wife Annie were so hospitable. Keira loved Ernesto and you could hear her little voice echo across the mechanics workshop, as she would greet him every morning, “good morning Ernesto”. She would follow Ernesto throughout the workshop. Keira even had Ernesto calling our car Priscilla and referring to Priscilla’s tires as “Priscilla’s shoes.”
During the week, we explored La Paz. Mike and I could remember little bits of the city from our last trip. We sat in San Francisco plaza and people watched, we explored the “witches markets” (a market where the vendors sell such things as lama fetuses, herbs and coca leaves for medicinal purposes), we did some shopping for wraps and a poncho for me, we sat in cafes catching up on blogs, we explored the supermarkets to restock specialty items, we caught up with some friends Laura and Jake, we got additional vehicle insurance for Peru, and we rode the teleferico. During one of our walks around the markets, we were befriended by one of the vendors and her daughter, Christina and Viviana. They invited us to sit and share some food with them. We returned everyday to sit, converse in Spanish and to have mate de coca. It was a really nice experience.
Ernesto and his team found multiple problems with Priscilla. Our brake pads were again worn down after only 3 weeks -bad parts and poor work. The check engine light and the cold start problems were altitude related and a normal occurrence.
We said farewell to Annie, Ernesto and his team and headed to Coroico in the Yungas ranges.
HIGHLIGHTS/CHALLENGES OF THIS AREA:
MOST VALUED POSSESION: Annie and Ernest Hug, and Ernesto’s team of mechanics
BEST EXPERIENCE: Mike- ; Keira- feeding the pigeons in the plaza ; Riss- hanging out with the local vendors
MOST CHALLENGING EXPERIENCE: Mike- driving in La Paz traffic; Keira- walking the steep hills in La Paz ; Riss- navigating in La Paz
BEST FOOD DISCOVERY: Mike-, Keira- huevos fritos (fried eggs) my standard lunch; Riss- honey soy chicken salad at the English pub
BEST CAMPING SPOT: Ernesto’s workshop
The morning we set off for the Bolivian border we were all a little nervous about what was to come. At Chilean migration, they enquired about our vehicle and our provisions for the trip. They were satisfied to hear we had a 4x4 vehicle.
The Paso Jama was still closed and it was disturbing to pass a line of waiting trucks to continue up the steep 2000 meter, 47 km climb to the Bolivian border. We saw the remnants of several accidents as we made the climb.
The roads were clear of ice and snow, but at the top of the climb we began to see the snow covered landscape.
At the Bolivian border we were extremely frustrated when the border officer would not allow us to enter on our Australian passports. He insisted that we must enter on our US passports. This meant that we would require a visa at a cost of 60 USD each. He would not budge. With no recourse we decided to pay for the visa. Our suspicions of corruption were confirmed when he handed us back $20 USD of the fee as we left, apparently as a gesture of good will. We suspect the immigration officer and his friend in customs had a good meal when their shift was completed.
We continued from the border, now in Bolivia, to the entrance to Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve of Andean Fauna, where we would begin the Laguna Route. The guides were pleased to see us and provided helpful information. They do a shift of 20 days on and 10 days off. The 2 rangers we met had been there through the storm and I suspect had a little cabin fever. We were the only over landers they had seen in the last week.
The Laguna route and Salar de Uyuni routes are not sign posted and there are not accurate maps of the area. This is why most people take a guided tour and why it is seen as being one of the best off road adventures for over landers.
Mike and I had completed such a tour 17 years ago on our first trip to Sth America.
We had been told that our GPS would not work on this route, and people were correct. Once again we relied on ioverlander and the information provided from fellow over Landers. It still amazes me that our exact location can be tracked on our ipad, and displayed on the ioverlander map.
Our travel companions Petra and Heinz also had a map of the route that friends who had completed the route a couple of weeks before had shared with them.
The road conditions quickly turned to dirt tracks covered in snow and mud. We learned early on that there was never a main track but many tracks, of which you chose the most travelled and the one that looked the least ominous.
Passing Laguna Blanca and Laguna Verde (the white and green lakes) we were struck by the beauty of the landscape, which was even more picturesque due to the glistening white snow. The bitterly cold winds had us adding layers of clothing, until we were clad in beanies, fleeces, scarves and gloves.
It was reassuring as we made the drive to see the tour group vehicles, knowing that if we needed help, it would not be far away.
I was pleased at this point to be showing no signs of altitude sickness. We had taken some aspirin that morning and were drinking coca leaf tea, which locals use to assist with altitude affects.
We continued on from the Lakes to the Thermal springs where we intended to camp for the night. The springs were at 4200 meters, but for a few days we would have no choice, as the altitude remains high. Mike and I had already determined that we would opt for hostel accommodation if the weather would be too cold. A park ranger quickly distinguished any thoughts we may have had regarding camping, as he forbid us to camp due to cold conditions. He also insisted that our friends could not sleep in their enclosed vehicle.
Accommodations on the route are few and very basic. They are mainly set up to house the tour groups coming through. We enquired at the only hostel and they said the only option they had was a room “out the back”. We discovered that it was in fact their storage room that they had put a couple of mattresses in for us with some blankets. The room had no heating and was bitterly cold. Since we had no option, we gathered all our bedding, ate our heated up soup, and retired to bed as soon as the sunset. It was a long night, with temperatures reaching -18 degrees C.
During the night we all had some symptoms of altitude sickness, nausea, some difficulty breathing and mild headaches. It was a chore to get Keira out from under the covers in the morning.
Mike was pleased that the car started on the first try. We had taken a cue from the tour drivers and had covered our engine in an emergency blanket from our first aid kit, to keep the engine from freezing over night. The radiator water had frozen and needed some hot water to assist it to defrost. All our other water supplies in the car had frozen and our soymilk in our room was frozen too.
We had every intention of bathing in the hot springs, but we had witnessed an event the night before that destroyed those ideas. Before the tours arrived, we watched the bathroom attendant wash the pit toilet covers in the hot spring pool. We posted a note on ioverlander to warn other travelers and held our breath as the tour groups bathed in masses in the pool. Yuck!!
We spent an amazing couple of hours at Laguna Colorado. The lake was full of flamingos. The snow covered mountains made an amazing reflection in the lakes waters.
We had separated from Petra and Heinz at the thermal springs, as they were travelling at a slower pace than us. They too were experiencing altitude sickness. We were unsure as to whether they would make it to Laguna Verde and if they did it would take them several more hours to get there. We had a time limit if we were going to make Uyuni, so we had to continue on way with no way to communicate with them.
It was coming on dusk and we knew that it would be close to dark when we arrived in Uyuni. We had decided to stay in a hostel, so we didn’t have to set up camp when we arrived.
At this point we came across a Bolivian couple on the side of the road with car problems. We stopped to see if we could be of assistance, however their fuel pump was shot. They had been on the side of the road for 3 hours with no one stopping to help. It was getting dark and cold, so we offered to tow them back to their hometown of San Cristobal, 20 km in the opposite direction to Uyuni. They took us up on our offer and were very grateful when we deposited them in front of their home. We said our goodbyes and continued on our way.
We were so happy to arrive in Uyuni. We found a hostel, showered and crawled under the blankets. We were once again pleased with our decision.
The following day was a rest day. Keira and I relaxed and Mike explored the town getting supplies and seeking out a laundry. We were amazed to find that Uyuni was now a large town. When we were there 17 years ago, it was a tiny town and there were about 7 jeeps operating for tours. Now there are probably 30 tours happening at one time.
In the afternoon we ventured out to the train grave yard where old steam trains have been deposited. They now appear more like rusted sculptures.
Most of the vehicles completing the tours are land cruisers. The drivers and tour guides were really interested to hear about Priscilla’s set up, and they were very envious.
Our second day in Uyuni, we ventured onto the Salar de Uyuni. Salar de Uyuni is the biggest salt lake in the world covering 10582 square kilometers with a depth of 10 kms. It was amazing to be there again, and to be driving on it in our own vehicle. We had an incredible day exploring the cactus islands, visiting the hotel made of salt, visiting the Dakar monument, making funny photographs using the perspective of the salt lake and generally chilling out. We met a group of Brazilians who were roasting nuts native to Brazil called Pinhao, similar in taste to chestnuts but shaped like a gigantic pine nut, and drinking wine from one of their wineries in Brazil. They showed us amazing hospitality sharing wine and nuts with us, whilst dancing and partying on the salt lake. It was an unexpected experience and a lot of fun. Once again we were pleased with our decision to do the Salar de Uyuni as a day trip instead of as a part of the extended Laguna route.
Whilst in Uyuni we visited the local markets to restock our fruits and vegetables. The local people were so pleased to see Keira, as they rarely see children from foreign countries. They ohh’d and ahhh’d over her, and she loved the extra attention.
Our first trip to Bolivia we had travelled to many parts of Bolivia and had an incredible experience. We did not feel the need to see these towns again, and sometimes going back to the same places you taint previous experiences because it is not the same. So, we decided to head straight to La Paz via a night in Oruro.
Mike was anxious to get to La Paz as Priscilla was having increased difficulty starting in the mornings. We had heard many times of a very experienced mechanic in La Paz, called Ernesto Hug, who works on overland vehicles and specializes in 4x4 vehicles.
Our next destination, La Paz.
HIGHLIGHTS/CHALLENGES OF THIS AREA:
MOST VALUED POSSESION: Priscilla- she is an awesome vehicle who has taken us to so many cool places and has kept us safe/George, plus John for helping to make Priscilla equipped for this type of travel/Mike and his expert driving skills in off road conditions.
BEST EXPERIENCE: Mike- completing one of the most challenging off road trips in Sth America/our day on the Salar/meeting the Brazilians on the Salar; Keira- making the funny pictures at the Salar; Riss- seeing the flamingos at Laguna Verde and enjoying the tranquility of the lake/our day on the Salar/meeting the Brazilians on the Salar
MOST CHALLENGING EXPERIENCE: Mike-the altitude; Keira- the cold weather; Riss- altitude sickness
BEST FOOD DISCOVERY: Mike-coca leaf tea, Keira-a popsicle in Uyuni- yummy even if it was so cold outside; Riss- our reheated soup- it was warm and yummy, a real comfort food in cold conditions/coca leaf tea-it really helps with altitude sickness.
BEST CAMPING SPOT: no camping this blog
PRISCILLA GETTING A WASH- there are special car washes in Uyuni that specialize in cleaning vehicles that have driven on the salt flats. Priscilla has never been so clean. It only lasted a day as we were back on dirt roads again.
San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile is located in a desert valley surrounded by mountains. For tourists it is the hub from which to explore the surrounding area and a starting point for tours into the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia.
Arriving in town we were shocked to be amongst so many tourists.
Our preference is to be in locations with minimal effects from tourism. Having said that with increased tourism comes extra perks like good restaurants, and good facilities but usually at an inflated price.
Thanks to our 2 travel apps, ioverlander (an app established and updated by over Landers containing campsites and local information) and Forever Maps, we were able to navigate the one-way streets and find a great hostel, Puritama. The hostel has a parking area set up in a garden area where you can camp and use the facilities of the hostel. For us it was an oasis. For Keira it had ducks, a dog, turtles and other kids to play with.
The first couple of days there were spent recovering from the effects of altitude sickness. I was feeling better now we were down in altitude but I was exhausted.
Whilst in San Pedro we had the pleasure of meeting Tori, a guy from New Zealand who had ridden his bicycle from the northern most part of Canada through Central America and Sth America. What an amazing inspiration!
We also met a wonderful Aussie family who are living in Santiago in Chile. The children, Edward, Nina and Keira explored together and had a lot of fun playing. We shared meals, and many conversations with Lucy and Scott.
The second night in San Pedro, a cold front moved through the area bringing with it 4 foot of snow at higher elevations. This closed some of the roads to the tourist sites. It also closed the Paso Jama, which we had crossed from Argentina, and the border crossing to Bolivia. The tours to Salar de Uyuni were unable to operate, and our plans to do this trip were also put on hold.
We heard many stories of accidents on the pass, and of poor road conditions.
A French couple we met at the hostel had completed the border crossing into Bolivia on the day that it snowed. They had to be escorted out of the area by Bolivian guides, as the roads were no longer visible.
We made a trip into Calama, a bigger city, and an hour’s drive from San Pedro. Calama is a city built to accommodate the needs of the biggest copper mine in Chile. It is a city known for its high crime. We needed to go there as Mike still had some concerns regarding the car.
As we arrived in Calama, the car began to make a pretty loud noise. Mike suspected the brakes and was correct. All 4 of our brake pads were worn down. We got these replaced at the Toyota dealer and they ran a diagnostic on the engine, with nothing detected again. The check engine light turned back on as we drove out of Calama.
Mike with the help of an Internet resource removed the cold start censor from the car and cleaned it, with the cold start problem improving, but not completely.
We were in a dilemma as to whether to cross into Bolivia to complete the Laguna route and Salar de Uyuni. We were getting mixed reports about the road conditions and the pass was only open intermittently during the day. The tour groups had resumed going, but they were experienced on the roads and were familiar with the route.
We had been searching for other over Landers to do the trip with, but there appeared to be no other over Landers in town. I went to the immigration office to check the road status and ran into Petra and Heinz, a German couple in their own vehicle who also wanted to do the trip. We made a plan to meet the next morning and if the border was open to make the crossing.
Mike and I have always taken decisions like this one seriously. We have never put ourselves at any risk, and now we had our little girl to consider. We would tackle the trip but if road conditions were unsafe we would return to San Pedro and take an alternative route.
We fueled up, carrying extra fuel in 2 x 20 liter jerry cans on the roof, prepared meals for 2 nights so we didn’t need to cook in the cold conditions, and filled up our water supplies. We were happy that we would be travelling with another vehicle, confident in our preparations, but a little nervous about the unknown. I was a little anxious about getting altitude sickness again. Mike was apprehensive about the car, and of course Keira was ready for anything. We had the perfect elements for a perfect adventure.
HIGHLIGHTS/CHALLENGES OF THIS AREA:
MOST VALUED POSSESION: our brakes
BEST EXPERIENCE: Mike- meeting Tori and the Aussie family; Keira- playing with Edward and Nina and looking after the turtles; Riss- watching the sunset over the lakes/meeting cool people
MOST CHALLENGING EXPERIENCE: Mike- working out the issues with the cold start censor/getting accurate information regarding the road conditions on the Laguna Route; Keira- getting out of the tent when it is cold; Riss- dealing with the after effects of altitude sickness
BEST FOOD DISCOVERY: Mike- gigantic empanadas (pastries with meaty goodness), Keira- apple and lemon ice gelato- sin leche (without milk); Riss- Jumbo supermarket in Calama to restock supplies
BEST CAMPING SPOT: Puritama Hostel
Our last day in Salta we visited the Archeology museum. The museum houses the bodies of 3 Incan children, who were sacrificed 500 years ago. They have a fascinating collection of artifacts that were found at the children’s’ burial site. It was amazing to see the mummified bodies and to learn about the rituals and customs surrounding their deaths and their culture. However it is hard to shake the feeling that we were being disrespectful in observing their bodies and that removing their bodies from their resting place was wrong. On the flipside, being in the hands of a museum is better than being in the hands of grave robbers, which is where some of the “mummies” end up. We still have mixed feelings about the whole experience.
Toyota Salta did not find any problems with our car, however the cold start problem remained. 120kms further north, we discovered that they had forgotten to replace an engine wire cover. We had to retrace our steps to retrieve it. We were not happy campers.
We camped in the parking lot of the Thermal Springs at Reyes. Not our favorite springs but a nice warm swim. We shared the pool with a group of older locals who completed an exercise class in the warm waters.
Northern Argentina is known for its desert landscapes and colored cliffs. It is also home to the indigenous population of Argentina. The landscape reminded us of New Mexico with its adobe houses, kiva ovens, red chilies and colored rocks.
Tilcara is a small town situated in the northern valley. We stayed in a campground there for a few days enjoying the tranquility of the town and the desert landscape.
Also Keira had a group of local children to play with. Whenever opportunities like this present themselves we stop, so Keira can have “kid time.” We noticed moving north that the local children are more willing to play and are not frightened off by Keiras accent.
The northern most point in Argentina we went was to a town called Humuhuaca. We decided to wild camp, so headed out in the countryside towards some ruins at Coctaca, hoping to camp the night there. When we found the ruins, they were right beside a little village and the entrance was at their town square. We got permission from a local lady Claudia to camp in the square. It was one of our more interesting camping spots. We became the local attraction, as word spread through the village of about 40 residents. The next morning we explored the ruins, which were quite vast, covering 40 hectares. You could still see the terracing but most of the buildings were reduced to rubble. We said our farewells to Claudia, buying a homemade slingshot from her as a gesture of goodwill.
Purmamaca was our next stop before crossing the pass to Chile. It was another small town with a beautiful backdrop of colored rocks. We found a small family run campsite for the night, enjoying conversations with the family, but not their non-stop barking dogs.
The road to the Jama Pass between Chile and Argentina took us past our first salt lake, Salina Grande. We took the opportunity to take some crazy photos using the perspective of the salt flat. From there it was all uphill, as we climbed to 4800 meters. The scenery is quite spectacular, as you travel for many kms across a plain at 4200 – 4600 meters.
The rapid accent and the extended time at this high altitude are a recipe for altitude sickness, especially when coupled with little sleep. I ended up with an intense headache and severe nausea. The only real cure is to get down to a lower height, which took us sometime due to the pass. The headache did subside and I started to feel better once we arrived in San Pedro de Atacama, but it took me a couple of days to really recover. Keira as usual took the whole thing in her stride showing no signs or symptoms.
HIGHLIGHTS/CHALLENGES OF THIS AREA:
MOST VALUED POSSESION: nothing in particular
BEST EXPERIENCE: Mike- camping and mixing with the local people in Coctaca ; Keira- playing with the local kids in Tilcara ; Riss- camping in Coctaca
MOST CHALLENGING EXPERIENCE: Mike-crossing Paso Jama; Keira- saying good-bye to my friends at Tilcara ; Riss- dealing with altitude sickness
BEST FOOD DISCOVERY: Mike-cheesy ham bread, Keira-popsicles ; Riss- cheesy bread cooked over open grill
BEST CAMPING SPOT: Coctaca camping
Just a place to keep our mates informed on where we are at, and what we are up to.