The South Yungas: Coca, Death Roads, and Open Arms


Befriending the Beast

From our French toast days in Quime, we set off on a loop through the South Yungas, reduced to 6km/hr days on mud that feels and sounds like we’re rollers on wet paint. The route we took etched itself into the breast of the rain-whittled beast, a ledge through the Yungas that peers off over sheer drops and patchwork plots clinging against gravity’s selfish nature. We’ve come to conclude no route through this small country will be easy; all has been condensed, squeezed and thrust into a space that necessitates fierce upward crawl. The rain brought out the loamy scents, cow cheese and jam with a tinge of eucalyptus. We find ourselves off the tourist trail, as kids giggle when we roll through town and the stall keepers laugh when we ask to buy only one potato and one onion for our dinner. They then consult with at least three other women to determine how to price such negligible quantities.

We’ve taken two buses now, one from Miguelas to Chulumani and another from Chulumani to Unduavi where we started in at the mouth of “El Camino de Muerte” (The Death Road, so called because while in use it topped the charts as the deadliest road in the world). The buses blow air horns at each bend, reminiscent of steam whistles, as if we’re aboard a freight train of yore pressing around the precipitous curves. One driver started the ride with a bag of coca leaves hanging off his turn signal, and like a machine, packed his cheek one leaf at a time in a constant motion for the following 100 km. With front row seats, we were hypnotized climbing up to the pass where at the end, when the clouds kindly afforded a view, we could see the roads laid out below like confetti after a festival of saints.

Festival Hostages

The night prior, we’d been stopped cold by a town festival, unable to continue down the road for fear of drunk drivers whom we’d been warned about and indeed encountered. We had ridden into the village of Miguelas welcomed with a standing ovation and beer thrust into our hands from folks dressed ornately in traditional costume. This annual fiesta honors the town’s founding and is hosted by a person or couple chosen the year prior to give their one-time gift to the town. That person pays for the entirety of the three day festivities, including child’s games, several bands bussed in from the surrounding region, food, and as much beer as anyone can drink. Life stops and folks come from afar to partake. We learned the town festival in Quime where we’d been lasts 7 days.

We stayed that night with a couple who’d paid $10,000US for the town party they’d thrown four years prior. Fortunately for the host, another aspect of the tradition includes all guests gifting them crates of beer, recorded in a ledger and regifted in the same amount for any future party thrown. The hosts then sell the beer to recoop some expense. Throughout the evening and into the night, we took refuge from the boisterous imbibers, hiding out in our host’s, Blanca and Guillermo’s, bungalow. Guillermo sporadically returned to impart his melodic proverbs (melodic not in a poetic sense, he literally sang in an operatic baritone from a throat that hadn’t slept in 48 hours): ¡Hacerlo! and ¡Vivir con intensidad! meaning, “Don’t just talk about doing it, do it!” and “Live with intensity, as if every day were your last day to live!” Hours later, we were lulled to sleep by the sound of late night revelers, maestro-ed by Guillermo.

Coca Corridor

The next day, after three different locals independently told us the following section of our route, between Miguelas and Chulumani, is ridden with cocaine production, unlicensed vehicles, and perhaps other unsafe issues, we chose to take a bus. While peering out at the passing landscape, we grew increasingly curious about the crop’s controversial production. The country’s president Evo Morales has publically denounced Bolivia’s cocaine production, while simultaneously fighting to increase the legal production of coca. We read at the 2012 UN meeting on narcotics that he held up a coca leaf and said “This is green, not white.”

Perhaps Evo is attempting to control something that’s indeed uncontrollable. In a local Yungas radio station, we read a billboard pasted with newspaper articles highlighting that a vast portion of the coca goes through a black market. Evo prosthytizes the use of coca for tea, cosmetics, and other products, but with the absolute incredible supply we’ve seen carpeting the mountainsides, we can’t possibly see how the legal demand could make it such a profitable option for the locals (a shopkeeper told us about the recent increase in citizens’ ability to buy cars and build two story homes lined with balustrades). There has to be another output, which we’ve heard is cocaine (one of the articles we read at the radio station reported Brazil’s complaints that drugs were entering the country from Bolivia).

Another problem we’ve heard from multiple locals is that the growing coca production has led to a decline in food production. Yuca goes for 40 centavos a pound (6 cents US) while coca fetches 40 Bolivianos a pound ($5.80 US); many have turned to coca to earn their living. With this explosion, we’re curious about the argicultural practices, and whether the terraced plots, creeping from the mountains’ bowels to brows, are devasting the land. We constantly heard the term “complicado” (complicated) in Argentina, but perhaps it’s more applicable here.

Yet Love Persists

Amidst miniature orange bugs that gnaw on our legs until we bleed, mandarin trees that drop fruit with the movement of birds, and “death roads” lined with iron crosses marking those that perished, we’re slowly coming to an understanding of Bolivia. The locals here, women clad in beautiful layers of patterened skirts and bowler hats, men with their coca-bulged cheeks, and children with the “hey gringo!” shouts, all have welcomed us with a generosity unmatched to date in our trip. We’ve been gifted ripe bananas and avocados, a bed for the night, an endless stream of smiles, and an ever present willingness to chat. Even in our constant state of discomfort, we’re falling in love with Bolivia.

From Coroico, we’re heading into the North Yungas, where we’ll either ride the most hellacious stretch of road yet, or float in a boat into the Amazon. Time will tell.