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The Yungas in Bolivia and the Pantanal in Brazil

BOLIVIA | Saturday, 19 May 2012 | Views [580]

Cycling the world's most dangerous road

One of the popular activities from La Paz is to cycle what used to be the world's most dangerus road. However due to how many people died (cars, minivans, etc that went off the side) they have built a new road and the cyclists generally have the road to themselves now so its not quite as dangerous as it once was.


You start off at 4,600m at the top of the pass out of La Paz and at the end of the day you've descended to 1,200m at Yolosa, in the Yungas, cycling about 64km. Much to our disgust it wasn't all downhill - there were a few sections in the day where we did have to pedal a little bit.

The first section of the road was on a good wide tarmac road high in the mountains. The wind was pretty chilly at that height and that early in the morning. You could only see cloud below you, and I´m sure as we cycled down the cloud came up to meet us. The dangerous part comes when you turn onto the old road. The area where the mountains drop steep down into the edge of the Amazon is called the Yungas and is cloud forest which means cloud, rain and poor visibility, as well as steep hills and vertical drops off the side of the road. The old road was a good gravel track, though in some places barely 3m wide which would have been problematic when it was being used for 2 way traffic. There was the added hazard of waterfalls just dropping across the middle of the road in places too. There is no fence and the road just drops away for 100s of metres ... just don´t take those corners too fast! The scenery on the cycle ride is meant to be spectacular but I spent most of the day looking at the road.

The Yungas

At the end of the cycle we were going to stay in the Yungas for a couple of days. I had high expectations of a pleasant climate so we stayed in a nice hotel with a patio and pool, but I didn´t realise the place was plagued with sand flies. Within minutes I looked like I'd been attacked by a red biro (teeny blood dots)! Coroico also had the best food we'd had in Bolivia: German breakfasts and French run restaurant for dinner (no wine though). One day we walked to 3 cascades but the path had been closed just before the 2nd cascade (actually to shut the path in Bolivia is unheard of, even if the cliff had collapsed) - the cause of the closure: bloody capitalism! You had to pay to view the falls now - 10p! We had to back track and take some miscellaneous tracks down to the road we could see below and the car park. The other day we walked up the ridge behind Coroico giving views of the valley bottom at 1,100m up to snow capped peaks at 5,000m. The landscape is a patchwork of cloud forest and farms, coca leaf plantations on the higher slopes, and bananas or coffee in the low lands. The Spanish brought in African slaves to work in the mines of Potosi, and when they were freed they moved to the warm climate around the Yungas. You could see elderly black African ladies in full High Andean outfits, bowler hat and all.

Another day another strike in La Paz

From the Yungas the plan was to go back to La Paz and get the first bus out of there to Santa Cruz...however this is Bolivia and there's always protests in La Paz! The drive into La Paz was a little strange, we left the main road before we got into La Paz and bounced along a dirt track in a canyon instead (where they were mining the river stones). The driver was stopping to talk to the people going the opposite direction. There was a big strike in La Paz and every intersection was blocked by mini vans...the driver was trying to get as close to La Paz centre as he could on whatever roads were still open. We had to walk 4km across La Paz with all of our stuff - at least La Paz is really easy to navigate as it's in a canyon. We couldn't leave that night as the roads were still closed, a lost day in La Paz. I had to console myself with one last visit to Alexandar coffee (cinnamon roll and chocolate submarino). We had a couple of long travel nights. The bus from La Paz left at 14:00 drove through the night to arrive at Santa Cruz at 8:15 the next morning. We had a day in Santa Cruz and then got the night train to the Brazilian border town of Quijarro. As soon as we were off the train we got a taxi to the border, and walked across the bridge into Brazil.

Crumbly Corumba and the Pantanal, Brazil

We entered Brazil at crumbly Corumba. Find it on the map....it's in the middle of South America but it was one of the busiest inland ports in its day. The port was lined with crumbling old colonial buildings. The whole town had a feeling of decay, the heat and humidity probably don't help. It was a Friday night and we found a busy local restaurant. The standard plate in a restaurant is big enough to share so you have to agree on a meal between you. The meals actually are too big for even Phil to polish off by himself! We also had our first Caipirinha, sugar cane, lime, sugar and ice - they are pretty potent, I guess ice doesn't really count as a mixer? After Bolivia it was really nice to be in a restaurant that was heaving with locals and had a good atmosphere. Through Bolivia it had been shoulder season and the only restaurants for evening meals are really just for tourists. Brazil is also famous for it's 'per kilo' restaurants - we discovered that this principle extends to ice cream shops: 3 freezers of ice cream flavours, shelves of sauces and toppings.

The next 2 days were spent in the Pantanal. The Pantanal is an area approx 10,000km2 of wetlands that flood annually, a swamp really. I don´t think we really saw much of it. There was only one budget option in the Pantanal (sold by different companies, at different prices) and at best you could describe the guides at disinterested. Despite the guides efforts we did see quite a lot of wildlife including giant otters, monkeys, caimen, capybara, and plenty of birds, and clouds and clouds of mosquitos. On the drive in to the Pantanal, a local stopped us: there was an anaconda under his house (the houses are on stilts). He really struggled to pull it out of its hidey hole, and even though they are constrictors he was very careful with the head. I think this was uncommon as the locals were alongside the tourists doing happy snaps with the anaconda. I think it was a small anaconda but it was still long enough that the guy could have used it as a skipping rope. The poor snake was given a 'leg and wing' into the river.

Our piranha fishing was much more successful in the Pantanal, I got a 1.5kg beast. The fish were taken back for lunch too...and the extra ones we caught were released. Again the steak used for the bait was better than the food they gave to the back packers, and I think Phil would rather have eaten the steak, rather than the piranha! 

Beautiful Bonito

In the Southern part of the Pantanal is a town called Bonito, which is the Spanish word for pretty. This was tourist-tastic - the shops on the main street were selling "someone went to Bonito and all they bought me was this lousy t-shirt" t-shirts. It's a big Brazilian holiday destination so you're expected to have your own car to get to the attractions. To keep the transfer costs down you just have to see what trips the hostel is running and go with that. We went to two lots of cave: Logoa Azul (blue lake) was pretty good, the other was crap but they did feed some macaws.

What Bonito is really famous for is its crystal clear river waters that are full of fish (something to do with springs and mineral deposits). We cycled out to the municipal pool early one morning and had the snorkelling all to ourselves. The fish seemed pretty big there (40-50cm) and came rather close (I definitely kicked a couple when I was swimming). We also went to the privately owned and run Rio Da Prata (River of Silver). It was a little pricey but it was AMAZING! To be honest where you start snorkelling is little more than a stream but full of fish, 50 different varieties apparently, some teeny, some up to 60cm in water that was only waist deep in places. The water is fed by underwater springs -  at times you can see the spring bubbling up below you. You float 3km down stream and you did not kick as this disturbs the fish and the sediment. The last section is in a bigger colder murkier river with bigger fish. I can't believe this place is not world famous. If Disney did an aquarium it would be like this - but this was real, and quite frankly I don't think a static aquarium could support that many fish!

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