Recently I traveled from Camiri up to the town of Tarata, just outside the city of Cochabamba. The reason was a meeting of the International Council of Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation of the Order of Friars Minor (my order, the Franciscans). In doing so, I traveled through many of the different geographies that make up Bolivia. Here was my route:
Camiri to Abapó
The first stage involved traveling from my home in Camiri up through the Gran Chaco to the town of Abapó, a trip of about two hours.
The Chaco is a semi-arid area of South America which lies below the Amazon Basin. The Andes mountains run most of the length of western South America. Most of the rest of the continent is a huge basin, collecting all the rivers to eventually form the Amazon River. Below this basin, however is the Chaco. During the rainy season, there can be torrential runs. During the rest of the year, there is no rain what-so-ever. This means during the rainy season the Chaco can be a rich green with vibrant vegetation and during the rest of the year everything dries out. (Many people in the Chaco raise cattle. During the rainy season, the cows plump up. During the rest of the year, they get skinnier and skinnier. By October, it is not uncommon to see starved cattle lying by the side of the road — dead by hunger or by thirst.)
There was a war — over oil, of course, or, rather, the possibility of oil — between Bolivia and Paraguay in 1932-1932. As a result of this year, over 100,000 lost their lives and Paraguay won a big chunk of the Chaco from Bolivia. They say that more died of hunger, thirst and disease than died as an act of warfare. The are reports of bodies, with large holes dug in front of them as they searched in vain for water. The Chaco is also infested with insects, many disease-carrying, and this also contributed to the loss of life. In the end? There was no oil. The few deposits of oil and natural gas are all in the little bit of the Chaco that Bolivia retained.
This drive is a nice one as there are rolling hills and, at this time of year, a rich green. The main danger is from animals. The people in this area allow their cattle, goats, pigs and what have you run wild. Since the brush can be so dense, they usually move to the highway. The result is a constant danger of hitting an animal. A goat or a pig is one thing, but hitting a cow can kill you.
Abapó to Santa Cruz de la Sierra
After exiting the Chaco, one enters the Amazon basin — that huge basin that forms much of South America. It is flat and, because of frequent rains, very green. After two hours of driving north on a very straight road, one arrives at the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra. I stayed overnight before starting on the 9-hour drive from Santa Cruz to Cochabamba and then on to the town of Tarata.
Santa Cruz de la Sierra to Chapare
The graphic to the left shows the whole route. One drives north from Santa Cruz to the town of Montero and then take a turn to the west. This first part of the journey is across the Amazon Basin, the same as the journey between Abapó and Santa Cruz.
With the flat and green landscape, it is not unlike similar trips I have taken in Brazil and in South Africa. (Well, Brazil makes sense since they are both in the Amazon basin, but it also does remind me a bit of South Africa.)
The trip could be considered a little boring except for the incredible colors of green. During the rainy season, this area receives a lot of rain. During the rest of the year, there is a substantial amount of green, which keeps the area green and the Amazon River full.
Chapare to Colomi
Shortly after crossing the river which marks the boundary between the departments (states) of Santa Cruz and Cochabamba, one reaches the town of Villa Tunari which sits at 190 meters (623 feet) above sea level. From that point on, the road winds around climbing up the side of the Andes Mountains until finally reaching the summit at 3,270 meters (10,728 feet). Since this is the side of the Andes facing Amazon, the area is vividly green.
This portion of the journey is a difficult drive. Not only does the road wind back and forth as it slowly climbs over 10,000 feet, but it is also broken by numerous “geologically unstable” segments where the road is not paved with asphalt but instead gravel. So, not only is the vehicle constantly climbing but also the road itself goes from paved to choppy and filled with ruts. Here is a graphic showing the tortuous path of one part of the road:
After passing the summit, one is then winding along the top of the Andes heading for the valley of Cochabamba. There are no trees at this altitude, although as I made my trip it was during the rainy season and so there was a lot of green. The main agricultural product at this altitude is potatoes, although other crops are also grown.
After finally reaching Cochabamba, I headed up to the Valle Alto above Cochabamba to the small town of Tarata. This town sits on the old road between Cochabamba and Potosí, and so was once on the main path of the silver making its way from the mines at Potosí to Spain. Now, though, there are new roads which take different paths and so Tarata is a small town whose main products are peaches and chicha — a fermented corn drink still the main alcoholic beverage of the poor.
It’s a 13-hour trip from Camiri to Tarata which travels through the Gran Chaco, across the Amazon basin, climbs the Andes and then passes along the top of the Andes — a truly amazing trip through many of different terrains which make up Bolivia.