Bolivia by 4x4: Hey! Where did the road go?

The Land Rover G4 Challenge crosses Bolivia this week. It's a perilous journey. Jeremy Hart knows - he reccied the route

Bolivia are not in the World Cup but most of their geographical neighbours - Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Ecuador - are. Little wonder football will be the sole focus of attention next month in Terevinto as the rest of the planet does battle in Germany.

Elvio Rivero is thinking about football as we speak. I can see him mentally totting up the number of men in the three Land Rovers which we have driven into the village. Five. Enough for a team in a game of five-a-side football ...

"We have two teams - best in the region," Elvio divulges, pointing at his pride and joy, some blue-and- white football posts (minus netting), stood almost perpendicular to attention on the village square. But not only is it 35C and 85 per cent humidity in the midday sun, too hot for football, we are on a mission - to conclude the reconnaissance of Land Rover's G4 Challenge - a competitive expedition that will cross Bolivia from tomorrow for two weeks.

We must complete the exploration of possible routes and locations along 800 miles of the steamy lowland chaco and up into the Andes. Elvio's offer of a kickabout has to be turned down. "You know, no one ever comes through here," he shouts after us as we start pulling out of town. "The roads are too bad ..."

Our destination is Sucre, the whitewashed administrative capital of Bolivia. Our planned route to the colonial city will rise from the sweaty depths of the chaco at just 300m above sea level to the rarified atmosphere of the Andes, where we will be at an altitude of 3,100m.

The climb is gentle at first. Beyond Terevinto is the land that time forgot. As the crow flies, we are less than 100km from the fast-food and internet society of Bolivia's second city, Santa Cruz, but in Western terms, the subsistence life led in these hills is medieval.

The houses have pock-marked walls of dried mud and straw and roofs layered with palm leaves. There are no mains services. Furniture is assembled from split logs. Arriving in a 21st-century 4WD makes us feel like Martians might have if they had landed on Earth in AD1120.

The chaco is prime coca-growing land. In Santa Cruz the ubiquity of blacked-out limos, driven by men in slick designer clothing, suggests a local economy not based entirely on legal business. Coca is as common around here as wisteria is in Stow-in-the-Wold. So I try some.

"Stuff the coca leaf between your gum and your cheek," instructs the farmer we stop by the roadside. He has fished in his hessian sack of thick green coca leaves and handed us some each. Coca is not illegal. Only cocaine is. But even the leaf has powers. Chewed like tobacco, it injects a fiery buzz into the system, so we keep some for the long night-time drives ahead.

In less than 50km the chaco rises almost vertically to mountains. Between Santa Cruz and Samaipata the Andes rise out of the plains so abruptly it is like scaling the outside of a dinosaur sleeping on a bed of verdant grass. The mountains are smoking when we start the first serious ascent. The weather is rushing down to greet us.

Samaipata is an endearingly rustic and rather run-down colonial farming town on the edge of the plateau, the sort of place where you cannot be sure if the holes in the plasterwork are bullet or otherwise. Samaipata means "rest in the highlands" in Quechua, an indigenous language.

From Samaipata to Sucre, Bolivia's roads are unmade. Renting a 4WD is vital. On a peak outside La Higuera the clouds encircle us and almost explode. Within seconds the track is awash. A torrent of muddy water, more than half a metre deep, barrels down the mountain road carrying branches and debris with it. But like a ship busting through massive waves, our Land Rovers plough on - although a car ahead of us comes close to being swept 500 metres into the valley below. But with biblical drama, the waters disappear as fast as they had arrived. Silence returns to the top of the world.

Even though I am aboard the most modern vehicle in Bolivia, and possibly the whole of South America, the last leg of the trip, through an inky moonless night, is butt-clenching. The earlier rain has left the main, dirt, highway into Sucre with about as much grip as blancmange.

This is the domain of coca-chewing goggle-eyed madmen behind the wheels of Bolivia's express buses. Like Cyclops, on account of usually having just one working headlight, they emerge every few minutes out of the blackness at breakneck speed. Bolivian bus drivers see speed as an element of machismo. An over-laden bus, painted more garishly than John Lennon's psychedelic Rolls-Royce, on the edge of adhesion is a good reason to move over.

Relief comes only with the sight of a cluster of twinkling lights in a valley ahead. The lights of Sucre - the city from which Che might have governed. But he never got past La Higuera. At least we managed to do that.

Jeremy Hart went to Bolivia with Land Rover. To create your own itinerary in Bolivia, contact a South America specialist such as Journey Latin America (020-8747 3108; journeylatin america.co.uk), which offers trips starting from £1,335 per person, based on two sharing

News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Arts and Entertainment
L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans) & Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers Assemble
film
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
News
i100
News
Caplan says of Jacobs: 'She is a very collaborative director, and gives actors a lot of freedom. She makes things happen.'
people
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Trainer / PT - OTE £30,000 Uncapped

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015