The double peak of Mount Tunari poked up just beyond the closer ridgeline, hazy in the distance, but evidence that Cochabamba lay in the valley beyond it. I have never been so happy to see that peak! After seemingly endless hours on the road, we were finally on the long, long descent into the High Valley of Cochabamba, and at long last, a mountain I recognized.
We had been driving since 6am, tropical sun rising over the limitless expanses of industrialized agricultural fields in Santa Cruz, over the nearly one hundred speed bumps along the main highway through picturesque hill country, then following a beautiful canyon to Samaipata. Spanish colonial haciendas flourished among the green hills strewn with oak groves, and official tourism signs began with “Dear Gringo”. Somewhere in the high, hot desert beyond Siberia (no joke), the road split off toward Sucre, and we stopped to buy a dozen tucumanas (hot pockets with potato) and inquire about the conditions of the Old Road to Cochabamba.
“It’s horrendous,” came the reply. “But is it passable? Has it caved in anywhere?” “No, the trucks can make it through.” Fantastic. Let’s do it.
The road was so bad that the few remaining bits of pavement were mountains and ridges on what would otherwise have been a decent dirt road, but they appeared at intervals that forced you to keep your speed to 25mph. At full speed and allowing for 45 second pit stops, we reached Cochabamba 17 hours later…google maps had predicted 8 hours.
Why were we on this intense, backroad 4×4 experience, you may ask? The journey began two days prior in Villa Tunari, a small jungle town at the base of the Andes Mountains. We had just finished four days of amazing tropical camp experience, swimming in rivers, fishing, slacklining, rappeling, rafting, hiking to waterfalls, and sitting in emergency rooms (don’t ask). But on the last night, heavy rains fell steadily as we huddled safe and dry in our tents, and washed out the main highway up and over the Andes to Cochabamba in three places. “Road crews have been working since 2am and haven’t been able to clear any of the landslides,” we were told. Trucks, tour busses and private vehicles began stacking up for miles along the highway. I overheard one of the truck drivers saying that the last time this happened, the road was out for 3 days.
We had two options: wait it out, camping and swimming and eating canned food, or we could embark on a journey along roads I didn’t know or even have a map to that would take us probably several days, and go the long way around. The vote was unanimous: adventure it is!
The first stretch along the straight, flat, tropical highways was glorious, and spirits were high as the sun went down and the kilometers whizzed by. I pulled into a gas station to fill up, but they were out of fuel. The same at the second gas station. Isn’t this the fuel-producing region of the country, I asked? Driving nervously, I found a third station well after dark that appeared open. No gas is sold after 6pm they informed me, to prevent people from making drugs with it. Interesting. We shall leave aside the logic as to the effectiveness of such a restriction, and focus on the fact that we were running on fumes. After stopping to ask at a tire center along the road, they informed me we could buy gas at twice the price from a number of huts along the road. We found one, filled up a 20 liter gas can, asked why the gas smelled funny, and went on.
We proceeded to blow through small towns, and in the process nearly ran straight through an illegal toll booth, consisting of a chain pulled across the highway in the dark. It was a good thing the men saw us coming at high speed and lowered their chain at the last minute, or people could have been seriously hurt. Nearing Santa Cruz, almost 8 hours later, I decided to pull over and find an empty field to camp in. In the dark, we pitched the tents in a burnt out field covered in ash that we only noticed in the morning. Although we set the course to bypass the city, our navigator misread the map on his phone and we found ourselves in the deserted main plaza of Santa Cruz. Heck, we’ll stop for a photo in that case, we reasoned.
The most intense part of the journey came around midday on the second day. We were somewhere in the mountains between Sucre and Cochabamba, and not at all sure we were on the right road. Cell service had cut out hours earlier. What worried me is that the dirt track kept climbing higher and higher, and hugging the top of a ridge that clearly bordered on the Amazon. Fog tumbled down over the ridegline, evidence of the humidity beyond. We weren’t somehow heading back into the jungle, were we? The truck got quiet and tense as we entered the fog, and for 20 miles drove through the cloud bank with little visibility, and no guard rails protecting us from a fatal drop into oblivion. Emerging on the other side, I praised God for a sunny day; had we traversed that section in rain or darkness, it would have been a completely different experience.
Nerves eased up as we descended the mountain into the sparsely populated valley below. I pulled the truck over into some shade and slept 20 minutes while the boys, ever in high spirits, took advantage of the break to make lunch on the tailgate. Although during the final descent into Cochabamba the boys in backseat fought like typical children, the guys sprawled on top of the backpacks in the bed didn’t even complain about the heat, the cold, or being caked in dust. The guys were truly great travelers, which makes the difference between a long and painful journey and a fun and epic one. And I think God rewarded us for our adventurous spirit, ensuring our safety and providing amazing weather. And we were absolutely vindicated in our decision not to wait it out; the road remained washed out for a week, and when it reopened (just one lane), the ensuing traffic jams lasted another week.
Fundación Aventura 1 – 0 Crumbly Mountain Roads