Bolivia is a country of approximately 10.5 million people; its 424,164 square miles make it the 28th largest in the world. Those square miles are also some of the most biodiverse in the world, with ecologies ranging from tropical rainforests to dry desert valleys to stepped savannas. It rises from just 230 feet above sea level along the Paraguay river to higher than 21,000 feet at the peak of the extinct stratovolcano Nevado Sajama on the country’s western border. And I was there to challenge a wide swath of it with Overland Experts, an off-road driving and school based out of in East Haddam, Connecticut that provides detailed off-road and 4×4, fleet management and ATV training. Over nine days we were slated to cover 1,240 miles, not conquering the big country but merely surviving it, creeping along some of the most dangerous roads in the world one grueling mile at a time.
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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.