Google Bolivia, and amongst some of the first things you may read is that up until a new road was built in 2007, Bolivia was home to the World’s Most Dangerous Road. To quote my Lonely Planet guide, “the road between La Paz and Coroico was identified [as such] by an Inter-American Development Bank report, citing an average of 26 vehicles per year that disappeared over the edge into the great abyss.”
Now that the replacement road brings passengers more safely to their destinations, naturally the tourism market has taken over the old road, offering guided bike tours down the 63 km “Death Road.” It’s basically a must-do on any backpacker’s Bolivian itinerary, but I’m not a thrill seeker so I was definitely nervous. But what is life if it’s spent inside your comfort zone? So I mentally prepared myself for the last month or so, and finally got up the courage to conquer this famous ride. I’m happy to report that 1. I survived without a scratch, 2. I wasn’t freaking out the whole time, and 3. I had so much fun! Luckily some thick fog prevented us from seeing the treacherous cliffs from the start, but as the mist cleared it revealed some incredible views of the dramatic surroundings. The gravel road is barely wide enough for two small cars to pass so I understand why it gets its name! Unfortunately, peering over the cliffs reveals the remains of many fallen buses, a very eerie reminder that this wasn’t a Disney World attraction with safety nets and invisible barriers to protect me. In fact, many cyclists get seriously hurt on this ride, one of the reasons why I left all of the aforementioned details out of what I told my parents I was doing before I departed La Paz (I’m very sorry Mom and Dad!). Despite all this I would argue that unless you’re being unintelligent about speed and your general personal safety, it’s a really amazing day of mountain biking through some incredible nature. Highly recommended on your next trip to Bolivia!
A very foggy start to our ride
It’s tradition to take a swig of this very strong alcohol before the ride…
…and to give a little to Pachamama (Mother Earth) to ask her to keep you safe
Wearing 4 jackets and 2 pairs of pants trying to stay warm in the rain
Finally some sunshine and a few less layers!
After a long day of the winding 3,600 meter (10,800 foot) descent, we were rewarded with a pool and a buffet lunch in the tiny town of Yolosita – well deserved and much appreciated. Instead of heading back to La Paz, I went to Coroico with two friends where we planned for some hiking, waterfalls, and coffee plantations the next day. Sometimes my favoroite places are the hardest to get to, and Coroico is one of them. Our “minibus” looked like it was 50 years old, and it bumped along a similarly daunting gravel road for 9km before reaching our destination. I’m thankful I’ve outgrown my childhood car-sickness because South American transportation would be really challenging otherwise.
Coroico is a small pueblo that sees lots of gringos fresh off the Death Road. It’s surrounded by lush green mountains (Las Yungas), home to some of Bolivia’s best coffee farms. Never heard of Bolivian coffee? That’s probably because up until ten years ago coffee was the #1 product from the Yungas, but now it’s fallen behind coca leaves – a much easier plant to process and a much more lucrative business for a farmer. Although Bolivia is high on the list of cocaine production around the world, coca leaves do serve other purposes. Many indigenous cultures use the leaves for rituals. Chewing the leaves can help the intense symptoms of altitude sickness. You can find coca tea, coca candy, coca beer, coca cake…the list goes on. What I didn’t know is how harmful it is to its environment because it’s not native to this particular region. According to the coffee farmer I spoke with, after 5 years of harvests, the ground where coca is grown becomes infertile and it takes 20-40 years to recuperate itself.
A coca farmer hard at work in the mid-day heat
Hot chocolate with coca extract 🙂
Coffee on the other hand is a very naturally growing crop in the Yungas. The owner of the hostel we stayed at recommended we check out M&M Café for some of the good stuff. I’m so glad we went! Mauro and Maritza, the sweetest couple in Coroico, grow their own coffee and serve it in their cute café near the main plaza. We chatted with their son, Maurito, for a while and he told us they also offer tours of the coffee farm, complete with the opportunity to participate in all the steps of the coffee preparation process. Of course I was sold! Up until this moment, I hadn’t had real coffee since Colombia because of the widespread consumption of instant Nescafé in Chile and Bolivia, something I will never, ever understand.
M&M Coffee is the real deal. I was feeling utterly exhausted from my bike ride the day before, but two cups of their coffee had me feeling like a million bucks. We chose to hike to their house so we could check out the waterfalls along the way and they offered to drive us back after our 4 hour (!!) tour. This was shaping up to be the perfect type of day.
Mauro’s passion for coffee was palpable. He took such care in explaining each step of the process to us. First we went out into the fields and picked some ripe berries off the trees. Berries sprout at different paces on the trees from August to October and are harvested at equally different times between May and July. Mauro only uses the highest quality berries for his coffee, which means he’s very selective about the ones that he picks and some are tossed because of their lack of quality.
Step two is peeling the berries, which was by far my favorite part. Mauro’s machine is powered by a bicycle and when he saw how excited I was about this, he let me be the one to pedal. The berries are funneled in from the top and the bicycle somehow (maybe magically) peels the shells to reveal the beans covered in a gelatinous fluid.
They then ferment in this fluid for 14-20 hours and need to be stirred at 4-6 hour intervals. Mauro said there’s a fine line between when they’re ready and when they’ve fermented for too long, something he said you just have to “know.” I trust him. The berries are then washed and left to dry in a green house for 5-7 days until they reach 11-12% humidity. Another extremely specific detail that I guess you just know.
The last step is to roast the beans which Mauro does over his very small gas grill. Toasted beans are packaged and after about a week they’re ready to be ground and finally enjoyed!
Mauro explained that since coffee trees are so natural to the region, all coca farmers in the area have coffee trees but they don’t have time or want to deal with the process of harvesting them since coca is worth more money. Five percent of the farmers in the area take the time to pick the good quality berries to sell to Mauro to use in his coffee, 10% pick whatever berries (meaning lower quality) and sell them to other coffee farmers in town, and the other 85% do nothing with the berries that grow on their land. That’s a lot of unappreciated coffee!
The most striking thing to me about Mauro and Maritza is that they’ve only been making coffee for two years. When I asked what they did before, Mauro shrugged his shoulders and said he worked on many different types of farms his whole life, but he didn’t seem to want to talk about it so much. “Ya he encontrado mi pasión, ahora estoy vivo.” “I’ve finally found my passion, now I am alive.” I couldn’t contain my smile!
Of course I bought coffee beans from them, and Mauro also let me take a small bag of coffee that I toasted myself. Between all that and what I bought in Colombia, I’d estimate that about 7% of the contents of my backpack is now coffee.
Coroico was the perfect escape from the mayhem of La Paz. The minivan driver that brought us back to La Paz whipped around that new winding asphalt road on whatever side of the double yellow line he pleased. The reggaeton was blasting and there was an infant in the front seat. Unfortunately in South America, a seat in a car that has both components of a seatbelt available is hard to come by. Although not necessarily what I would consider up to safety standards, this is certainly all part of the experience.
This is just one part of the long and winding new road