East of La Paz, the Cordillera Real drops precipitously into the Amazon lowlands, plunging through the Yungas, a region of rugged, forest-covered mountains and deep subtropical valleys. Blessed with fertile soils and watered by plentiful rains, the warm valleys of the Yungas produce abundant crops of coffee, tropical fruit and coca for the markets of La Paz and the rest of the Altiplano; indeed, long before the Spanish conquest the peoples of the Andes maintained agricultural colonies here to supply the Altiplano with coca and other subtropical products. Several of the sturdy stone roads that originally transported the leaves – and linked the Yungas outposts to the main population centres – today provide some of the most scenic, challenging hiking in the region.
Even if you don’t hike, the journey down to the Yungas from the Altiplano is truly spectacular. The original road from La Paz to Coroico is widely considered the most dangerous in the world, hugging the forest-covered mountain slopes as it winds above fearsome precipices. It’s also among the most scenic and dramatic, and – since the opening of a bypass – frequented predominantly by mountain bikers. While the road is still open, the vast majority of motorists use the bypass.
The most frequently visited Yungas town, Coroico itself is a tranquil place, with a warm climate and wonderful views that provide the perfect antidote to the bleak Altiplano. From Coroico, the road continues north towards Rurrenabaque and the Bolivian Amazon (covered in Chapter 6). Midway between Coroico and La Paz, Parque Nacional Cotapata is one of the few areas where the natural Yungas vegetation is still well preserved; the Choro Trail, one of a trio of so-called “Inca” trails (though they were probably earlier routes which were used and modified by Incas) in the region, passes through the pristine cloudforests of the park. Another of these trails, the Takesi Trail, also known as the Inca Trail (Camino del Inca), is one of the most popular treks in the Yungas. The quiet town of Chulumani is less frequently visited than Coroico, but has similarly good views, while the nearby Yunga Cruz trail, is more scenic than the two other “Inca” trails, and also poses a greater challenge.