The central western Bolivian region of the Yungas has long been hailed as one of the natural gems of South America. This rich and wet patchwork of rocky karsts and thick rainforest forms the transition between the fertile farming plains in the west and Bolivia’s Andean ceiling. This is a land of roaring waterfalls, sheer drops and hanging vines, all punctuated by leafy human settlements that spring up from the forest floor like organic protrusions that are indelibly surrounded by wild nature at every turn.
The town of Coroico is nestled high on the mountain ridges of the Nor Yungas Province. Here, around 12,000 locals have made their lives in the clouds, surviving day to day in the formidable shadow of the mighty Mururata, deep in the granite rises of the Cordillera Real. It’s a town truly enveloped by drama, shouldering up to deep and misty gorges and cut around on all sides by sheer valleys clad in a deep forest green.
For those coming to Bolivia for the nature, there’s little wonder that Coroico proves extremely attractive. In the last ten years it has risen to become the biggest tourist destination in the Yungas, with more and more people coming here to revel in the laid-back life of the people on these mid-way mountains at the very doorstep of the Andes proper. What’s more, it has enjoyed a place right on ‘Death Road’ out of La Paz, and has successfully established itself as one of the most conveniently placed stop off points for those brave enough to venture the trail.
Despite not being quite as detached and ‘off the beaten track’ as the dislocated and largely untouched mountain towns in the high-Andes, or the soaring plateaus of the Cordillera Real, the natural surroundings here remain undeniably wild and untamed. Consequently Coroico has become a major player on the outdoorsy trail that now figures so highly on the menu for visitors to the South American continent.
Just a short ride out of town it’s possible to pick up some of the hiking trails that meander their way through the rocky canyons and water pools of the immediate countryside. Most that are accessible from the town itself will take all day to finish, offering visitors a real mix of experiences that have become the trademark of this region; from river swimming to treks deep into the primeval forests of the Yungas north.
The best hiking excursions however are generally accepted to start (or finish) at La Cumbre, which sits nearly 5000 metres above sea level along the ‘Death Road’ to La Paz. From here, hikes will take a minimum of two days and incorporate swathes of the navigable mountain ridges lying between these two settlements.
Needless to say the panoramas on offer are second to none. From all sides the rolling jungle claws its way up the dark stone faces of cliffs and karsts, while in the distance the looming sceptres of the high Cordillera hills silhouette themselves ominously against the hot pink sun. Amidst the forests there are opportunities for other sports too, from canyon walking to kayaking and biking. Be warned though, there are few places as commercially accessible on earth that are less suited to unhardened nature travellers than the Coroico wilderness, and if you really want to experience what the jungle has to offer, expect to get tired, very tired.
That said, Coroico is also fabled for its truly laid-back vibe. Just like in the mountain enclaves of North Thailand, where hippy locals laze their days away in the heat of the sun, there are plenty of ‘take it easy’ types littered all around the town here.
The town itself is a pleasant patchwork of post-colonial architecture and high-mountain shacks. Brick-laid streets run unevenly all over the place, and the sleepy Tavernas open late, close early and are largely indifferent to the tourist buzz that’s begun to take hold. That said, every Saturday and Sunday Coroico still plays host to the biggest of regional food markets, and this is when the town really comes to life with a truly authentic Bolivian flavour.
While the infamous bike ride from La Paz to Coroico has become a tourist favourite, and there are now a real variety of tour operators that can offer the experience, getting in and out of town has become much easier with the recent opening of a new highway. Busses – both local and private – can be had from La Paz almost every 15 minutes during the day, while it’s also possible to commission private taxi services if you’re willing to pay the premium.