– September 2013 BOLIVIA –
The distance from Coroico to Rurrenabaque is under 350km and the Lonely Planet Guide has the following to say about it:
“When the roads are dry, buses run daily between Rurrenabaque and La Paz (13 Dollars, 18 to 24 hours), but it’s best to break the journey at Coroico, which is ‘only’ 14 hours from Rurre. Prepare yourself for delays, which are common on this route.”
Now we understand why so many people choose to take a plane. It only gets us more excited; nothing like a little adventure driving!
Change of Plans
We were going to cut up our journey into two easy days. That did not work so well…
Sunday we waited in Coroico because we could not get the engine adjusted (distributor).
Monday the technician was done just an hour too late to enable us to leave that afternoon. Not enough time to drive.
Tuesday we wanted to roll out of Coroico at dawn, but found out about road construction lasting until 17:00. We waited and got to Caranavi at 19:30.
Wednesday we just missed the 07:00 allowance in Caranavi to get rolling, and waited all day to start driving.
Thursday we left uncomfortably early to beat the road block and rolled into Rurre in the afternoon.
First try getting out of Coroico we ran into a road block. Construction work on this main artery from the jungle to La Paz meant the road to Caranavi had to be closed from 07:00 to 16:00. We decided to leave the next afternoon and at least make the 3 hours down the road to Caranavi and head out early the next morning.
Barely Missed It
Startled but with excitement we woke up at the 05:30 alarm, and our Toyota fired up at 06:45 only to be informed that this road too, was closed from 07:00 until 17:00. It was 6:50 and we rushed out! At 7:07 we reached the head of the blockade… too late. Every kind attempts to bribe the lady (using an excuse that we were expected for volunteer work) was useless. So we aimlessly pottered about town, had the car washed in the dirty river (helped a lot) and drove into a hole in the pavement.
Two gringos stuck in a trench in the middle of town drew a half dozen of Caranavi reporters within minutes! David suddenly found himself surrounded by microphones and small cameras and punished them with his bad Spanish. Apparently not much goes on in Caranavi…
At 15:00 we joined the line and at 17:00 we were rolling in the right direction.
Not far in, small 4×4 pick-ups had piled up where a Volvo truck had got stuck for a lack of traction going up hill in the mud. Our Land Cruiser became the day’s hero and pulled out this massive machine 150 meters.
The driver was immensely grateful, exclaiming how all the others had been very unkind to him and not willing to help much. Even as we were towing him out, others tried to squeeze by while we were swaying left to right on the slippery surface. This is very dangerous, as the road drops into a straight ravine…
By now darkness was setting in and though we wished to make good time, we did not know this road, and it was muddy and filled with pot holes, so we had to drive with caution.
Only twenty minutes along, another problem arose. Heavy trucks carrying timber were having trouble managing a deep muddy section. Many got stuck and needed to be given directions. We were feeling a little impatient, so after helping a half dozen pass, we squeezed by instead of waiting on the others to come.
We were stopped and inspected at a road station. Two military men jumped out of the darkness, their fiery flashlights investigated what was in the back of our car. All I could look at were their machine rifles, casually slung over their shoulders. “What are you looking for?” we asked in our pretend naive-traveler way. “Oh guns, drugs, anything.” A timely reminder that we were crossing one of the world’s most active cocaine producing areas.
A Short Night
Understanding that we were not going to make it to the end of the construction zone (Quiquibey), we stopped for the night in Palos Blancos, the only town around that offered accommodation. Those few hours of driving had left us tired and dropped us in a town that sees no white faces. Navigation in these parts is tricky as road signs are absent and locals will give you incoherent answers (usually involving elaborate arm gestures) so it was a serious task to master map-reading.
We decided to do things differently the next day, so we asked several people what time we should be on the road if desiring to get to Rurrenabaque. When gathering this sort of information, one can always expect as many different answers as the number of people you asked.
By 04:30 am we were on our way! A short-cut to the main road took us straight through thick jungle on a bumpy dirt road without light or any other vehicles. By now we had gotten to doing precisely what we had always intended to avoid; drive a deserted road in the dark, in the most notorious cocaine-growing region of Bolivia.
At dawn we passed another control station and our car was turned upside down. Luggage was rummaged through by two very serious soldiers, while we were interrogated by another. One always needs to be cautious in these situations, and we stayed on top of our things so as nothing would ‘go missing’.
The Pampas (flatlands of the jungle)
Breakfast on the road routine: Porridge and coffee, sitting on the tail-gate of our car, peering out from the last steep ridge seeing before us the drop-off to a vast and expansive upper Amazon… All is flat from here on.
Now the road became more easy to drive. Before late we got to Rurrenabaque, a town of 800 people at the River Beni, close to Madidi National Park. We chose a comfortable hostel with a pleasant garden space and hammocks.
Time for a beer…