Xtreme Bolivia

In September ’05, after staying in La Paz, Bolivia, at 12,600 feet, I spent two days at the Esmeralda Hotel (phone in Bolivia 010-221-36017, fax 36041 [from the U.S., phone ++591-221-36017] or visit www.hotelesmeralda.com) in Coroico, elevation 4,800 feet, to get warm and recover from the altitude.

My old guidebooks warned that the La Paz-Coroico highway was too dangerous for tourists, but I had read that the road had recently been widened and paved and was safer.

The new highway is not complete, and just as it reaches the exciting part of the descent, traffic is diverted onto the old road and you see firsthand what the guidebooks meant. This is a narrow, one-lane, unpaved (gravel, dirt and mud) road carved out of the side of near-vertical mountains. It carries lots of car, bus and heavy-duty truck traffic.

The downhill traffic is required to keep to the outside and must back up until the uphill traffic can get by. Since there are numerous blind curves, this happens a lot. The passing places are not wide, and you can expect that at times your left-side wheels may be within 18 inches of the edge, with no shoulder and no guardrail and with a fatal drop below. There are collections of little white roadside crosses on some of the turns, and on several turns there are so many that they overlap.

The risks can be reduced by doing the downhill in daylight — this is a must! — on a local bus with an experienced driver or on one of the smaller buses (owned collectively in one of the many co-ops) with a driver who is on this road every day. Hiring a driver at random in La Paz or trying to take a rental car on the road is riskier.

I was given a ride to Coroico by two German tourists who paid $125 to hire a car and driver in La Paz. This driver did not seem as sure of himself and as at home on the road as the minibus driver from the Yunguenas bus co-op with whom I rode on my return trip, which is why I would rather ride in a cramped minibus with a regular road driver than in a comfortable car with a driver hired at random from La Paz.

A big surprise was that this road is a Mecca for mountain bikers, and we met about 60, in several groups, when we returned uphill. There are several companies in La Paz that aggressively promote downhill trips, promising riders a T-shirt that boasts “I took my bike on the world’s most dangerous highway.”

If you are a mountain biker and want to try this, I have some suggestions.

Approach the ride with respect. It is not a breezy cruise down Haleakala in Maui; it is an endurance test on a rough, often muddy, always treacherous road, not all downhill. Do it when you are in shape, because you are going to work hard to earn that T-shirt. Choose your line and control your speed so that if you go down, you won’t slide off the road.

All the trucks, buses and cars you meet have the right of way and will expect you to get over to the edge and stay clear. If you keep coming, they will assume you believe you have room to squeeze by and they won’t slow down.

At the start of the ride there will be several hotdoggers who race ahead trying to get to the finish first. Resist the temptation to join them because this road is a high-risk, low-reward venue for proving yourself. Don’t expect to find ambulances and paramedics in rural Bolivia, and you will be hours away from serious medical help.

The road to Coroico descends to the river and then climbs again about 1,500 feet to the village, which from a distance looks like an Italian hill town. The large intercity buses and the smaller co-op buses both will deposit you in the attractive town square, and the Esmeralda Hotel is a steep six blocks up the hill, above the village. The hotel provides an on-call shuttle for guests to and from the town square; phone the hotel for a pickup or have a local taxi take you.

The hotel itself is an attractive, well-maintained country hotel with a swimming pool, lots of veranda and deck space for relaxing, views of the town and the lush green valley below, and hammocks on the balcony outside the deluxe rooms ($15 a night). The German proprietor speaks English. There is Internet service as well as a paperback book exchange.

Meals are buffet style and cost extra but are inexpensive and very satisfying. I keep thinking of those breakfasts where I had a plateful of sliced papaya, eggs, sausage, French crepes with butter and local honey, and corn bread, and bananas, and oranges. I didn’t need lunch.

The bill for my extras — the two breakfasts, two suppers, two bottles of good Bolivian red wine, two liters of water and six hours of Internet time — was $16.

This hotel was as comfortable as any 3- or 4-star hotel in Bolivia, and it had working hot water, something which the starred hotels on the Altiplano often didn’t have. It is great value, and word must have gotten out in the backpacker set that this is a good place to hang out and relax, for there were a number of young Europeans there — not rowdy spring break people but quiet travelers.

If you have a group of half a dozen or more, the hotel can put you in touch with local people who can provide a half-day tour to the coca plantations to talk to the farmers and get their perspective on coca-related issues.

You may want to make your reservation for the return trip from Coroico to La Paz one or two days in advance. The minibuses run every hour and leave about on time. All seats are reserved. You can book from the hotel or at the booking office on the main square. When you book, you’ll be shown a seating diagram. The minibus will be jammed and uncomfortable, but if you pick the front right-hand window seat you will at least have a great view of the mountains to distract you.

Fares are very cheap, less than $3. I booked with the Yunguenas bus co-op, but there did not seem to be any differences among the minibus operators. Each driver owns his own minibus, and the new-looking bus parked in front of the office may be quite different from the one you actually board.

My minibus was old and well worn, rattled and noisy, but the tires and brakes were good and the engine never missed a beat on the long climb up the mountains, which is more than I can say for the new-looking rental car I rode in to Coroico which boiled over on the last uphill stretch into town.

There are also the regular intercity (Greyhound-size) buses on this road, but they are much less frequent, though undoubtedly more comfortable.

Petaluma, CA