Death Road… no really.

Scared to death I pulled on my breaks praying I wouldn’t go over the edge. Sometimes activities live up to their reputations. Billed as the “death road”, the world-famous La Paz to Coroico mountain bike ride is a spectacular and thrilling downhill ride on a dangerous, old, gravel road. Popular on the backpacker circuit, we had heard about the ride as far away as Nicaragua and were practically salivating to get to Bolivia for it.

Suiting up in moto-cross gear, we felt invincible, especially when we saw that the other tour groups were only in reflective vests. I’m not going to lie, the gear was cool. We zipped down the asphalt, where riders have been clocked at over 80 km/h, hugging the curves and pedaling hard on the straight aways. Loving the adrenaline rush of the speed, I was still a little nervous and pretty liberal on the brake. I have no idea how fast I was actually going, but trust me, I was on the verge of out of control.

With so many riders out on the road I expected to see many more crashes. After all, its not called death road for nothing. Twice along the road we saw memorial plaques to riders involved in fatal accidents, one only a few years ago. Fortunately or unfortunately, whatever your opinion may be, I saw only one person skid out the entire 5 hour ride, and he jumped right back up and onto his bike. Nothing like last year’s tour de france crash.

The gravel section was incredible. Only about one lane wide, the old gravel road was in terrible shape. Besides the steep downhill grade, the road was marked with potholes and big rocks. Vibrating and shaking because of the rocky surface, we navigated the serpentine turns white knuckled. Literally riding on the edge, it was the perfect balance of fear and excitement. I loved every minute of it.

The stories we had heard and the scars we had seen seem to be urban legends for the road, while not exactly the safest, was certainly not a death sentence. In fact, it seems that most of the people who crash or go over the side are experienced mountain bikers trying to do tricks, while the rest of the people are just trying to make it down in one piece.

Five hours of downhill riding from 4800m to about 1200m and we were still in one piece. Pulling into Coroico for a celebratory beer, buffet and swim, I wanted to do it again. :)

Pro DownHill Operator Review

Sunset Tours (Rurrenabanque, Bolivia)

We recently used Sunset Tours for our trip to the Pampas in the Bolivian Amazon. We booked our trip upon our arrival in Rurrenabanque, Bolivia without any hassle at all. Before booking we searched around town and interviewed several other tours. We found the people at sunset to offer a similar trip as much lower prices (although we later heard of others paying the same that we paid at other locations). The biggest positive to booking with sunset was the flexibility they showed us when Jillian was ill on what was supposed to be our first day, allowing us to push our trip back without any problems or fees.

Most importantly though was that everything was as described and we had a great time. The food was all surprisingly excellent given our location far from civiliazation and the lodging was quite comfortable as well. We also felt good about supporting local labor and owners in a new business venture.

The only problems we had were with our transportation. On the first day the car broke down several times and on the final day it was late to pick us up. Additionally, we were told the guide would have an intermediate level of Spanish and while we were OK with the fact that this was not the case, several other non-Spanish speakers were quite disappointed.

Overall we had a great time on our trip to the Pampas, the food was good, the guide was great, and the memories will be forever.

Amazon- Game Recap

When our broken down jeep finally puttered into the dock area and we realized we´d made it with our lives and could already see the caiman chomping on fish.

2. The number of piranhas caught by the group…and one was caught by the guide.

We rode back with a different group (consisting of 4 Germans, 1 Pole, and 1 Aussie) so we could make it back to town to catch our flight. In exchange they asked us to lead them in a rendition of the ´Star Spangled Banner´ to which they all knew the words.

Jill, for being the only one in our entire group NOT to go swimming with Caiman (alligator/croc cousin) and the man-eating piranhas..

Do I have your interest yet? Hope so!

We´d long ago chosen Bolivia as the place where we would venture into the Amazon. This is because the Bolivian Amazon is more accessible than most other Amazonian tourist spots and with fewer tourists it is known for having the largest variety of biodiversity (amongst the best on the planet) and best wildlife viewing. Plus, we´d heard that you could go swimming with pink river dolphins. (OK, really, who even knew the Amazon had river dolphins?)

So as our tour began we were quite excited for what lay ahead. We had only to brave a 3 hour drive in a jeep to get to the 3 hour boat ride. What we didn´t know was that the car´s radiator was leaking and that the driver thought it would be a good idea to fill it up with the muddy water he could find on the side of the road. In fixing the leak he also managed to remove the car´s grill which meant that once we finally started moving again the hood actually flew up and cracked the already cracked windshield even further. And this was the part without the dangerous wildlife.
With the car trip taking twice as long as it should have we were quite relieved to finally reach the river and begin our boat trip. Some of you might remember our time in Moskitia where we had a 6 hour long boat ride and saw a lot of indigenous communities along the way. On this trip instead of seeing people we say caiman…lots of caiman…more caiman than you can shake a stick at and if that expression still doesn´t make sense to you, you should go there and try to shake a stick at all the caiman b-c you just won´t be able to do it. We saw them swim, we saw them chomp, we saw them eat, and we saw them gaze at us as we floated by in our posh little boat. Caiman are the South American equivalent of the alligator, only they are uglier. On top of the caiman we saw more water foul than I (please remember I grew up in a home that is in what used to be the Everglades) have ever seen in my life and we even saw capybara…the world´s largest rodent. (Looks quite tastier than that cuy we just stomached in Peru…hmmmmmmm). The most amazing part was how active all the wildlife was, nothing like trying to spot a gator in the zoo.

So that was the boat, but what about the land. On day two we went out in search for an Anaconda, one of the largest serpents in the world. We walked and walked and walked. And while walking and walking and walking I was wishing that I didn´t have a size 12 foot and only a size 10 boot but I still made it work out somehow. Walking through the pampas should have been more difficult than it was but unfortunately much of the land is burned regularly to allow for cattle grazing. Granted, we´d taken the Pampas (savanna/plains) tour rather than the jungle tour but the utter lack of jungle really was eye-opening. Despite being disappointed with the landscape we were not disappointed with the result of the walk when we found a young male anaconda sunbathing along a trail. Luckily it was a young snake and not big enough to pick off any of the nearby gringos!
After a quick lunch we set off to find some pink river dolphins to go swimming with. Despite their name, they are not really so pink and in some of the pictures even look like narwhals (postcard to whoever can name the mythical creature based off the narwhal). We floated around for awhile and eventually found a spot with a few of them swimming where our guide was able to dock the boat. None of us moved.

We´d been told countless times by this point that there has never been a cayman attack on a swimming human because we are too big for them, not tasty enough, and the caiman try to avoid the dolphins b-c the dolphins steal all the food. That being said, still none of us moved. Finally the Aussie jumped in and was out just as quickly. Then someone pointed out that there were piranhas in the water as well as caiman and it was awhile again before another member of the group finally jumped in. I followed. For awhile it was just the two of us, the dolphins which clearly had no interest in us, the caiman, and the piranhas Did I mention that this water was completely brown and it was impossible to see even one inch below the surface? Eventually another member of the group joined, and then another. Finally 5 of us were in the water, with only one person remaining on the sideline…Jill. Letters of complaint can be emailed to or posted in the comment section below.

Since we´d already been swimming in the water we of course had to try to catch some piranhas Jill nearly caught one but it was really only the guide who did the job right. To hook a piranhas you need to pull up on the line as it is stealing your beef and hope the hook catches…otherwise it just swims off with your meet. Looking at the fish, I could see the little teeth but could not understand how they earned the name “man-eating,” they just weren´t that scary.

So the dolphins were a disappointment in that they didn´t want to play…but no one died either so that was a plus. We enjoyed a sunset and then took a night boat ride back to camp. The reason for the night boat ride was to watch the glowing eyes of the caiman, (have I mentioned that they are far more active once the sun goes down) as they watched us float down the river. This was kinda like being watched by that big scary eye in the Lord of the Rings…only it was 2 meters away and its buddy was just a few inches further.

The best part of the night though was the sky. We´d been doing a lot of trekking lately but all that camping seemed to coincide with a full it was a new moon and being nice and far from civilization the sky was simply amazing. One of the guys on the trip who had just been to the observatory in Chile that I really, really, really, really, really want to go to but am not sure if I´ll get to was full of information. He pointed out Jupiter, the southern cross (remember, we´re in that other hemisphere now…this is winter, almost spring), and even showed us how to derive south from the southern cross and a few other stars. It was during this that I counted 7 or so satellites and even more shooting stars. Even a midnight trip to the bathroom was rewarded with a brilliant flash across almost half the sky. I´d never seen anything like it and can´t wait to see more and more.

Cusco to the Amazon…

Having spent nearly 5 weeks in Peru, it was time to move on to Bolivia and get value from our expensive, but justified visas. Arriving on an overnight bus from Cusco headed towards La Paz, we arrived at the border prepared for a fight.  Rumors abound that even with the visa, the Bolivian border is not an easy crossing for Americans.  Arriving at the Bolivian Immigration office, the first official didn’t know how to handle our visas. Groaning we luckily found another immigration official who set the first one straight. Without so much as a hint of a n “extra payment” we crossed easily into Bolivia.

Having saved the Amazon until Bolivia, we were anxious to get there as soon as possible. Unfortunately it is an 18 hour bus journey from La Paz to the jungle.  No one said the jungle was easy to get to!

Weighed down with so much cargo, we inched our way north out of La Paz. The highest capital in the world, La Paz (3500m) is actually in a canyon, so our little bus had to slowly climb out of the canyon before heading on to the jungle. Cut into the mountains, the asphalt road was barely wide enough for a lane in each direction.  Unable to see what was certainly a sheer cliff next to us and pulling out all of our warm clothes, we tried to focus on anything else but the road.

And then the asphalt ended.

Bumping along a curvy dirt road in the dark I couldn’t keep my mind off the Bolivian bus warnings in our guidebook. No wonder, to let someone pass going the other direction our driver had to back the bus up over the cliff to give them space. Sitting in the backseat of the bus we looked behind us into the abyss praying the driver knew exactly where the tires were in relation to the road. As if the situation couldn’t get any worse we drove into a terrible thunderstorm. Bounced our of our seats so high we actually got air, we eventually somehow fell into a fitful sleep. Arriving the next morning in Rurrenbanque, 36 hours after leaving Cusco, we checked into a hotel and then marched ourselves to the regional airline office. Sometimes you just have to say enough is enough.

Booking ourselves on a return flight to La Paz, we were shocked the following day when our tour stopped at the airport to pick up two more travelers. A grass airstrip, often out of service for rain/fog/humidity you name it, the 19 seater from La Paz landed with a hard thud followed by the squeal of breaks. As “baggage” claim rolled the cart across the grass we looked at each other and smiled. The jungle is never easy to get to.

By the end of our jungle tour we had met five other people who had taken the bus from La Paz, and not a single one wanted to return via bus. As we crossed the grass airstrip to get into the plane, with no security check what so ever, I felt like I was on a movie set of the jungle. Could this be real? Climbing into the plane we took the first two seats and as the pilot shut the cabin door and triple checked that the handle was locked I steadied myself for what would probably be the bumpiest take off of my life. Finally we were in the air and just as my nerves calmed down an Australian from a few seats back yelled to me to look out the window. Turning my head I looked what can only be described as face to face, with the summit of a snow capped mountain. Wow. Sure beat the bumpy bus in the middle of a thunderstorm!

Lesson learned though, never underestimate jungle transportation!