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Bolivia, The Northwest: Cordillera Mountains and Subtropical Yungas, Coroico

Bolivia, Coroico, Pachamama

Seven years later, Bolivia still calls…


In a recent conversation over tea, a friend of mine from work told me she ate at a Bolivian restaurant in San Francisco called "Pachamama" and I nearly choked. Vague memories of a strange, big-lipped idol and my friends Dev and Cakes chanting "Pachamama" on our Bolivia trip during the summer of 2000 begged for me to get to the bottom of the mystery.


I had just graduated from college and requested as a gift from my parents a roundtrip ticket to Bolivia to visit Cakes, who had been studying there for a semester. Upon arriving in La Paz in June 2000, I learned that my backpack had been misplaced in transit. "Pachamama," Cakes whispered under his breath, clearly exasperated by the incident. We would be staying at his Tio Marcel's (uncle's) house on the outskirts of La Paz, and a journey back to the airport to retrieve my bag if/when they found it would prove time-consuming. Indeed, transportation back to Tio's house took a while. I had no bag, no clothes, no toothbrush, and La Paz was much colder than I had anticipated. That night, while I borrowed Dev's clothes to use as pajamas, Dev woke the next morning sneezing. He had caught a cold. "Pachamama," Cakes said again, very quietly. "Who is Pachamama?" I had asked.


I recently Googled for the meaning. Pachamama is “La Madre Tierra” (Mother Earth), most often revered in Lake Titicaca, where Dev, Cakes, and I rode a private boat, drank mate de coca, and ate “trucha” (fresh water trout) at a local stall. But there was something more to Pachamama. Soon, the real memory set in.


Another friend of mine from high school, who is currently touring South America for two months, recently welcomed his 30th year by watching the sun rise over Uyuni, the salt flats where I slept on a salt bed in a salt hotel. While it sounds like a fine idea, the hotel most resembled an igloo and the overnight experience was, in fact, like sleeping on a block of ice in the middle of winter. The hotel caretaker had warmed the foot of the bed with two heated wine bottles, but I still had to borrow Dev’s “Tigre” hat and Cakes’s wool socks to keep from shivering the night through. Fortunately, we awoke to a most glorious morning and ate an un-salty meal sitting on salt chairs and at a salt table.


In a birthday email, I ordered my friend to visit Coroico. I also recommended that he cover his bag with a tarp.


It was in La Paz that Dev, Cakes and I boarded the back of a bus headed for Coroico, a valley just hours from Bolivia’s high-altitude capital city. Cakes, observing several of the passengers covering their bags in plastic, bought a tarp to cover our bags, which were hastily shoved on top of the 10-person van with the rest of the luggage. It was only after we settled into our cramped seats in the back that we discovered we would be riding down a most infamous road, “El Camino de las Yungas” or “El Camino de la Muerte” (The Road of Death), which purportedly claimed one life every week. Luckily, our neighbor, apparently a frequent vacationer to Coroico, shared her large bottle of whisky with us.


The precarious journey down the valley was exacerbated by a strange technique of driving on the other side of the road (so the driver could see just how close to the edge he really was). The drive was also punctuated with several crosses indicating previous deaths-by-falling-in. Soon, afternoon became night and Dev had nearly drunk the whole bottle of whisky. Every time the driver backed up (in the dark!) to let a passing car by, Dev would peer over the rear window, squinting at the brake-lit road with a look of horror on his face and yell, "Para! Para! (Stop! Stop!)" We would literally be inches from falling into the valley to our deaths. On three occasions, all of the passengers were asked to disembark and walk ahead because the road was too dangerous with us in it. With only the bus’s headlights as a guide, we would walk across dilapidated road weathered by waterfalls (thus, the need for the tarp).


“Pachamama, Pachamama, Pachamama,” we chanted in unison, praying she would grant us a safe journey to the lush and beautiful valley of Coroico. It was close to midnight when we finally arrived, and we quickly gathered our wet bags (tarps can only keep them so dry) and nestled into our “Casa de la Mula Blanca” (White Mule House, which referenced the college we attended), a house tucked into the hill.


Since being frequently reminded of Bolivia as of late, I suspected that much has changed since my trip to the Land of Pachamama. After further Google research, I discovered Bolivian officials have recently closed the dangerous road (now only available for courageous downhill bikers) and opened a new, safer one for cars. Still, Tio Marcel's hospitality in La Paz, trucha in Titicaca, salt overload in Uyuni, our journey to the White Mule House in Coroico were well worth the memories.


When we arrived home, Cakes received word that Tio Marcel had caught a severe cold soon after we had stayed with him in La Paz and had passed away. Remembering how Dev had caught a cold and had probably passed it on to Tio, we all whispered a single prayer: "Pachamama."



Further Information

Must see/do at this place: enjoy the weather and the setting (especially when it's winter and the rest of Bolivia is cold)

By Brenda Yun
I am a creative writer / surfer chick in need of adventure all the time. The only thing that keeps me grounded is my non-traveling, non-surfing pug...
19 Dec 2007

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