The Yungas

AS A COUPLE
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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.

Achachilas and Apus

To locals, the high mountain peaks are more than just breathtaking natural phenomena. Known as achachilas in Aymara and apus in Quechua, they’re also considered living beings inhabited by powerful spirits. As controllers of weather and the source of vital irrigation water, these mountain gods must be appeased with constant offerings and worship, since if angered they’re liable to send hailstorms, frost or drought to destroy crops. At almost every high pass you’ll see stone cairns known as apachetas. As well as marking the pass on the horizon to make it easier for travellers to find, these apachetas are also shrines to the mountain gods. Travellers carry stones up to the pass to add to the apacheta, thereby securing the good will of the achachilas and leaving the burden of their worries behind. Offerings of coca and alcohol are also made at these shrines, which vary in size and form from jumbled heaps of rocks to neatly built piles topped by a cross, depending on the importance of the route and the relative power and visibility of the nearby peaks.

Chulumani

From Unduavi on the road from La Paz to the Yungas, a side road heads east towards the provincial capital of CHULUMANI, providing a dramatic ride as it plunges down from the high Andes into the lush vegetation of the Yungas. Chulumani is far less touristy than Coroico, though its setting – at an elevation of 1640m, on a steep hillside overlooking a broad river valley – is equally scenic. With its palm-shaded plaza and steep, dusty, narrow cobbled streets, lined with scruffy houses with red-tiled roofs, Chulumani is a typical Yungas town, and makes a perfect base for exploring the surrounding countryside. In the 1950s, however, it was notorious as a hideout for fugitive Nazi war criminals, including Klaus Barbie, the “Butcher of Lyon”, who reputedly once sold fruit juices on the plaza.

Coroico

Peaceful COROICO is one of the most beautiful spots in the Yungas, perched on a steep mountain with panoramic views across the Andean foothills to the icy peaks of the Cordillera Real. Founded in the colonial era as a gold-mining outpost, the town is still an important market centre for the surrounding agricultural communities. At an altitude of 1760m, it enjoys a warm, pleasantly humid climate. While travellers might not need the same amount of time in Coroico they once did just to recover from reaching the town in the first place – whether making the journey down from the Altiplano by micro, following the old route by mountain bike or trekking the Choro Trail – Coroico is still worth visiting just for the sheer thrill of getting there. It also makes a great stopover if you’re attempting the tough overland journey between La Paz and the Amazon lowlands.

Most visitors spend much of their time in Coroico lounging by a swimming pool and enjoying the fantastic views, but there are some pleasant walks through the surrounding countryside, plus increasing numbers of adventure pursuits. Coroico gets very busy at weekends and during Bolivian public holidays, when it’s transformed by large numbers of Paceños on vacation; if you want to relax in peace, visit during the week. The mosquitoes here can be ferocious, so cover up and bring plenty of repellent.

Parque Nacional Cotapata

Around 20km north of La Paz, some four hundred square kilometres of the north face of the Cordillera Real are protected by PARQUE NACIONAL COTAPATA (otherwise known as Parque Nacional y Area Natural de Manejo Integrado Cotapata). Ranging in elevation from 1000m to 6000m, Cotapata encompasses many of the astonishing range of different ecosystems and climatic zones formed as the Andes plunge down into the valleys of the upper Amazon Basin. Within a remarkably short distance high mountain peaks, snowfields and puna grasslands give way to dense cloudforest, which in turn blends into the humid montane forest that covers the lower slopes of the Andes in a thick green blanket. The cloudforest – also known as the ceja de selva or “jungle’s eyebrows” – is particularly striking, made up of low, gnarled trees and home to many unique bird species, and elusive pumas and spectacled bears.

The Choro Trail

The Choro Trail

The only way to visit Cotapata properly is by walking through the park along the pre-Hispanic Choro Trail. Running almost entirely downhill, the 70km trail is easy to follow and can be walked in three to four days. If you have your own camping equipment, a compass and (ideally) a map, it’s relatively simple to do without a guide.

La Cumbre to Chukura

The trail starts near La Cumbre, the high pass 22km north of La Paz. From the lakes just before La Cumbre, head north-northwest to another pass, Abra Chukura (4860m), which is marked by a stone cairn (apacheta). This 45-minute walk is the only part of the route that is difficult to follow – if in doubt stick to the rough track winding up to the pass. From the apacheta, a well-paved stone path plunges down the left side of the deep valley of the Río Phajchiri, passing the ruins of an Inca waystation, or tambo, after an hour or so. After two to three hours you’ll reach the small village of Chukura.

Chukura to Challapampa and Chairo

Below Chukura the cloudforest begins, the vegetation gradually thickening as you descend. After another hour you reach Challapampa, a small village with a shop and a camping spot by the stream. Three hours down the valley, at the village of Choro, the path crosses over the river on a bridge and climbs east along the right-hand side of a deep, densely forested valley – the track is still largely paved and is supported by a well-preserved stone platform in places. Note that several travellers have reported robberies in this area. The next available water and camping spot is another two hours or so away where a stream crosses the path; about three hours beyond that you reach Sandillani. From here it’s another two hours down the valley to the end of the trail at the village of Chairo.

The Takesi Trail

One of Bolivia’s best and most popular treks, the Takesi Trail (2–3 days) is a fantastic 40km hike starting near La Paz that crosses the Cordillera Real and plunges down into the steamy forested valleys of the Yungas, emerging at the village of Yanacachi, west of Chulumani on the road from La Paz. Also known as the Camino del Inca (the Inca Trail) the Takesi is one of the finest remaining pre-Columbian paved roads in Bolivia, and passes through an amazing variety of scenery. Relatively easy to follow and not too strenuous, it’s ideal for less experienced trekkers and can be done without a guide.

Ventilla to Estancia Takesi

The Takesi Trail starts at Ventilla, a small village set at an altitude of 3200m some 20km east of La Paz. From Ventilla, turn left off the main road and follow the clearly signposted track that winds up the valley northeast to the village of Choquequta, ninety minutes away. Here you can usually hire mules for the ascent to the pass or the entire length of the trek. Follow the track uphill for another ninety minutes until you reach a crumbling wall with a map of the route painted on it. Turn off the road to the right along a broad path which winds steeply uphill, with fine pre-Columbian paving soon evident along its length. After ninety minutes or so you reach the highest point on the trail, a 4600m pass marked by a stone apacheta from where there are fantastic views of the looming glacial peak of Mururata (5868m) to the east. From here the trail continues about ninety minutes northeast down a broad valley, through llama pastures to the herding hamlet of Estancia Takesi, passing an abundance of good camping spots along the way.

To Kakapi and Chojila

Below Estancia Takesi, the path crosses the Río Takesi onto its right bank, where it winds along steep slopes high above a thundering gorge. The air gets warmer and more humid by the minute as the trail drops below 3000m, and the sides of the valley are soon covered in lush vegetation. After two to three hours you’ll reach the village of Kakapi, after which the path, now heading east, again crosses a river. Continue uphill for half an hour to Chojila, a small and friendly settlement with a campsite (see Achachilas and Apus). It’s still over three hours from here to Yanacachi, so if you’re not in a hurry, it’s the perfect place to stay overnight.

Chojila to Yanacachi

From Chojila, descend for 45 minutes until you reach a concrete bridge; cross it and turn to the right. After a while, you’ll reach an aqueduct, which leads straight to a road. Be careful if you’re following the aqueduct in the dark – there are holes in the concrete slabs underfoot. When you reach the road, follow it around the bend and take the left, uphill fork. Soon, the road passes an unpleasant sulphur mining settlement known as the Chojlla mining camp. Unless you get a lift from a passing vehicle, you’ll have to follow the road for another two hours to get to the tranquil village of Yanacachi, just off the La Paz–Chulumani road.

The world’s most dangerous road

Few highways have as intimidating a reputation as the original road linking La Paz with Coroico in the North Yungas. A rough, narrow track chiselled out of near-vertical mountainsides that descends more than 3500m over a distance of just 64km, it’s still widely referred to as the world’s most dangerous road, a title bestowed on it by the Inter-American Development Bank. Statistically, the sobriquet is difficult to dispute: dozens of vehicles went off the road each year, and with vertical drops of up to 1000m over the edge, annual fatalities reached into the hundreds.

Following the route in its entirety from Unduavi, the first 40km are the most perilous and spectacular of the entire route. At times the road is only 3m wide, looming over deep precipices. To make matters worse, the road is often swathed in cloud, and in places waterfalls crash down onto its surface. About 86km from La Paz, the road reaches Yolosa.

After years of construction, however, a new multi-million-dollar bypass around the most perilous stretch opened in 2006, following a route that looms high over the old road on the opposite side of the valley and which tunnels intermittently through the mountainside. While some of the concrete and supporting rods have fallen prey to the elements, it’s still a huge improvement – at least space- and safety-wise – over the old route.

The 106km bypass has also slashed the journey time from La Paz to Coroico to about three hours by bus (2hr 15min by car); the old road took about four and a half hours. From Villa Fátima in La Paz, the road to the Yungas climbs northeast to La Cumbre, a 4800m pass over the Cordillera Real. From here it descends to the hamlet of Unduavi, where the road forks, one branch descending southeast towards Chulumani in the South Yungas, the other heading down northeast towards Coroico and the Amazon lowlands.

The nueva carretera (new road) initially follows the original northeast fork before splitting off and climbing high above it, following a similar trajectory along the spine of the mountains before descending to join the original road north of Yolosa, a hamlet set at about 1200m. Here, a newly cobbled side road climbs up to Coroico, 11km away, while the main road continues 74km north to Caranavi and beyond to Rurrenabaque.

Cycling down

What the statistics don’t tell you is that the old route – and to a certain extent the bypass as well – is among the most beautiful roads in the world. Starting amid the icebound peaks of the Cordillera Real, it plunges down through the clouds into the humid valleys of the Yungas, winding along deep, narrow gorges clad with dense cloudforest.

So spectacular is the descent that travelling the old Yungas road by mountain bike is one of Bolivia’s most popular tourist attractions, an exhilarating 5–6hr ride that’s easy to organize with tour companies in La Paz – Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking has one of the best reputations (see Tour operators). Local operator Cross Country Coroico, on Pacheco 2058 (

t

7127 3015),

was one of the first to ply the route, and it also offers several less infamous but equally challenging rides, plus less taxing trips for beginners.

The re-routing of most traffic to the bypass means – in theory, at least – cycling the route is now safer than it’s ever been, especially if you go with a reputable tour company with good guides and well-maintained bikes. Of course, the road is not entirely without risk, and people have been hurt and several even killed during the descent in the past, forced off the edge by traffic.

The Yunga Cruz Trail

Connecting Chuñavi, at the foot of the mighty Mount Illimani, with Chulumani in the Yungas, the three to four-day Yunga Cruz Trail (see map) is at once the toughest, most scenic and most pristine of the three Inca trails that link the Altiplano with the tropical valleys. Instead of following a river, like most Bolivian trails, the path leads along the spine of a giant ridge nearly all the way, giving trekkers a condor’s-eye view of the dramatic landscape. Water is scarce and the weather unpredictable, with heavy rain a possibility even during the dry season: carry at least two one-litre water bottles per person and take waterproof clothing. Route-finding is fairly difficult, so ideally go with a guide, and take a machete, as stretches of the trail may be overgrown.

Chuñavi to Cerro Yunga Cruz

The trail starts in Chuñavi, a small village on the northeast slopes of Mount Illimani, six hours by road from La Paz. From here a path with Inca stonework heads east to a small lake about ninety minutes away, before curving left along a broad ridge with plenty of decent places to camp, but no good source of water. The path then continues for about two hours along the ridge and around the side of the 4378m Cerro Khala Ciudad (Stone City Mountain) – look out for the condors that nest amidst its soaring towers. After a sharp turn to the right, the Inca stonework suddenly stops and Illimani disappears from view. Look out for the faded white arrow painted on the rock and turn uphill – after a few big steps, you should be climbing an impressive stone staircase. Another two hours further on, the path curves to the right, leading along the top of a broad green valley. Half an hour later, a stream crosses the path. Fill up with enough water for the night and continue for another hour until you reach a soggy campsite, just below the summit of Cerro Yunga Cruz, the last place to pitch a tent for several hours.

Cerro Yunga Cruz to Chulumani

Soon after leaving the campsite, the trail is crossed by a stream which is the last reliable water source before Chulumani. From here, the trail descends some 2000m through dense cloudforest. After two hours, the trail splits in two; take the right fork. Half an hour later, you’ll reach a clearing. Go to the end of it, then turn right, leaving the peak of Cerro Duraznuni behind you to the left. Chulumani should be visible in the distance to the northeast, perched on the edge of the ridge across the valley on your left. From here it’s another three to four hours to the main road just southeast of Chulumani, past deforested hillsides patchworked with bright-green coca plantations.

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Rough Guides Editors
8/29/2020
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