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

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features staging of a playground gun massacre
Travel
travel
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
News
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
art
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Environment
Tyred out: should fair weather cyclists have a separate slow lane?
environmentFormer Labour minister demands 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists
News
people
Sport
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
News
Field of broken dreams: Andy Bell visits Passchendaele
news5 News's Andy Bell visited the killing fields of the Great War, and his ancestor - known only from his compelling war diary - came to life
Travel
travel
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
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Day In a Page

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In my grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel