I really loved Bolivia, and especially Coroico. It’s a really beautiful area, the people are very friendly, the Spanish is easy to understand, and everything is really cheap (think 75 cents for a meal with a Coke). It’s definitely a wonderful area to explore.
1. UAC – Carmen Pampa
The UAC (Universidad Academica Campesina) at Carmen Pampa educates the local young people in subjects like agronomy, nursing, tourism, and veterinary science at an affordable cost. The school is run by Catholic nuns, and there is an upper and a lower campus, which are about a 1500ft elevation difference from each other. he people there are very friendly, and it’s really impressive. They’re so dedicated to useful education, and they’re very eco-friendly–they have a recycling area, organic gardens, separate trash bins for things that will be composted or things that can’t be, that sort of thing. They have a church, lots of classrooms, pigs and other animals for the veterinary students, a library, one room that has satellite internet, a place where they make coffee that you can tour, a small bee farm–all sorts of really interesting things. I know there are volunteer opportunities there too and there’s a guesthouse on the lower campus where the volunteers stay. It’s only about a half hour taxi/bus ride from Coroico.
2. Main Plaza
We were there for Bolivia’s independence day (August 6 1825) so the main square was all decked out with streamers in red, green and gold and we were able to watch the parade go around the square. Coroico isn’t a very large city, so the square with its benches and fountain featuring the tunqui bird, Coroico’s symbol seems to be a sort of center of activity for the city, with shops all around and a nearby fruit and vegetable market.
3. La Senda Verde Ecological Reserve
La Senda Verde is an awesome ecological reserve where we saw plenty of monkeys, macaws and parrots, a toucan, turtles and tortoises, and a caiman. The wildlife refuge mostly rescues animals that would have been trafficked as exotic pets or that weren’t cared for properly–for example, the caiman was in a tiny tank in an Asian restaurant in La Paz. It’s been permanently stunted by being in the tank and it had a skin infection when they rescued it, but now it can live in better conditions at the refuge. They also have two Andean (spectacled) bears, but we weren’t there at feeding time, so we weren’t able to see them. The monkey area is the big attraction, because they roam free and will climb on you and such. You have to take everything out of your pockets before you go into that section, and follow certain rules to make sure the monkeys stay calm (for example, no crouching because they see that as submissive). Unfortunately when we were there most of the monkeys were distracted, stealing food from the tortoises (volunteers have to place the tortoises at their food because they are so slow the spider monkeys will literally steal the food from their mouths). Anyway, when we went to the monkey section we saw quite a few capuchins up close, and a few further away, including one that they think has autism, but the spider monkeys that usually climb on people weren’t over there, so we had a calmer experience than most. Afterward we shopped in the little gift shop and ate lunch there. The food was quite good. The eating area is screened in all around, so you can still see the monkeys and birds while you dine, and we even glimpsed a coati through the screen!
We just did the tour, but they also have eco-lodges where you can stay overnight (there’s even a treehouse one), and basically live among all the birds and monkeys at the reserve. La Senda Verde was really cool, and I think it would be really fun to be a volunteer there in the future. They run mostly on volunteers and donations. If you want to volunteer, you must be over 18 years old. They ask a minimum of two weeks, and your room and board is very inexpensive while you’re there. If you can spend 60 days, you can even be an adopted parent for a baby monkey!
To get there, take a bus from Coroico down to the reserve. It’s about a half hour drive. Tell them you want to go to La Senda Verde, although around there even if you just say “the monkey place” they know what you mean.
4. Yungas Road
The road from La Paz to Coroico is called Yungas Road, and it’s one of the most scenic drives I’ve ever been on. It winds through the mountains and gradually changes from the harsh altiplano to a lush rainforest landscape as you descend to Coroico. While on the trip we saw mountains, a large lake, frozen waterfalls, herds of llamas, a few shops, bicyclists, and the entrance to the infamous Death Road. Most of the Yungas Road is a newer two-lane highway that replaced the dangerous Death Road, but you can still take bike tours of the Death Road from La Paz for a thrill.
We took a bus to Coroico (and back to La Paz) but the bus was the property of the UAC-Carmen Pampa, and I can’t verify the 2-3 hour estimated time that the trip is supposed to take because our bus kept overheating, and we would then have to pull over near a stream and pour water in the radiator. Our trip took five hours on the way there and about seven on the way back because of this. It was really hard to complain though, when every time we stopped I had the chance to get out and take pictures of the gorgeous landscape!
The area around Coroico is so mountainous and beautiful that there are plenty of hiking opportunities around. You can hike along roads to different communities, or through trails on the mountains. We hiked a trail from the upper campus of the UAC-Carmen Pampa to a really pretty waterfall that’s actually the source of the water we were chlorinating for the community.
After traveling to several other Latin American countries, I was really surprised at how easy the Spanish was to understand in Bolivia. Everyone I encountered spoke slowly and clearly and didn’t use much slang. I think it helps that everyone is so friendly too–it helps when they make an effort to understand you.
OFF THE BEATEN PATH
On the way from La Paz to Coroico, you could always do a bicycle tour of the Death Road! The Camino de Muerte is also known as one of the most beautiful roads in the world, and I know it would be an awesome experience to bike down it (we passed the entrance to the old Death Road along Yungas Road and saw quite a few bikers heading down it).
My best memory was going to a meeting of the Committee for Clean Water in Carmen Pampa. At that point in the trip, pretty much all hope of completing our chlorinator was lost and we were feeling pretty discouraged. We found out at the meeting though that the flow of the water is now much higher than in years past, and that the mason who hadn’t wanted to work on the chlorinator box that day was doing so because he knew the community wanted the water as well as the lower campus (Carmen Pampa had had a bad experience with chlorination in the past, so they hadn’t wanted the chlorinated water that the UAC was getting before). So, it was still a little disappointing that we didn’t complete our project, but our project expanded in scope and we were glad to hear the community was on board with the water chlorination. One of the men also gave a really great speech saying how grateful he was that we were helping, since clean water is a basic need that they have trouble meeting themselves.
The biggest letdown of the trip was that it rained for a whole day even though it was during the dry season, which meant we were unable to complete our chlorinator build with the rain. It did end up working out though (see Best Memory above) but it was really disappointing at the time.
Hands down, Carla’s Garden Pub. I didn’t enjoy a lot of food in Bolivia, but I did like the food, drinks, amazing views, nice bathrooms, and free wi-fi at this gringo haven in Coroico. Also, if you can get your hands on a Sublime bar, don’t pass it up–they’re delicious!
Blue Pine Farm Tienda is a really great place run by a British expat where I got some Bolivian chocolates and scarves. The owner is really nice and there’s a wide variety of souvenirs available.
WHY YOU SHOULD GO
Coroico is a really affordable destination, and it’s in an absolutely beautiful area of Bolivia. I guarantee you’ll enjoy the views along Yungas Road between La Paz and Coroico, and the lush, mountainous landscapes around the city. The people are so friendly, and you’ll have opportunities to get in touch with traditional campesino culture and improve your Spanish skills! It’s also a really cool area as far as ecotourism/voluntourism goes–you have wildlife conservation at La Senda Verde, lots of “green” work going on at the UAC, and volunteer opportunities at both places. If you’re thinking South America for your next adventure, I highly recommend checking out Coroico!