First, I had to make it out of the airport. After 12 hours on a plane from NYC to Panama City to the central city of Cochabamba, I was detained in the Bolivian Interpol office thanks to my suspicious pelican case, which apparently looks like a tote for a dirty bomb. A lack of sleep and a slipping grasp on Spanish complicated things; finally, after some pidgin explanations and hand signals, I was free to go.
The next day our small crew, including two Overland Experts instructors and our guide, a former advertising exec from New Zealand named Cory Rowden who grew up in Bolivia, climbed into our column of two Toyota Hiluxes — a compact pickup known as the “indestructible truck” — a Nissan Pathfinder and a Nissan Patrol. Four hours out of Cochabamba, the pampa or open plain grew into the heat and humidity of thick jungle, and we crept down muddy logging roads and worse. From there we climbed back through the mountainous countryside of the Yugen Indian Reservation.
There was a night boat crossing through a log-ridden river; we climbed 14,000 feet through the Andes; thick Amazonian forest caught us at the bottom of a 8,500-foot descent; we searched for a gas station among the boondocks for hours, driving on fumes.
No day thereafter was simple. There was a night boat crossing through a log-ridden river; we climbed 14,000 feet through the Andes; thick Amazonian forest caught us at the bottom of a 8,500-foot descent; we searched for a gas station among the boondocks for hours, driving on fumes. We navigated Death Road, which was named the most dangerous road in the world in 1995 and kept on being nasty through 2006, when it killed approximately 200 to 300 people in one of the worst years in its history. It was a beautiful view, made all the more poignant by my shaking knees.
Outside of Guanay we crossed the sketchiest bridge I’ve ever seen, a wooden swing bridge, supported by a couple of steel wires, barely wide enough for a car, hanging 30 feet above the water. Between Mapiri and Sorata we slipped along roads narrower than the Death Road (my knees again shaking violently). We cruised the shores of Lake Titicaca, the most wonderfully named body of water in the world, bounded only by the Andes against the horizon.
By the end of the nine days our vehicles were barely recognizable, covered with mud, rain, scratches and dents from the terrain we’d traversed. We didn’t carry the same external signals of harsh journeys — but the road we’d conquered, country we’d marveled at and people we’d met had made their mark all the same.