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

Sunday 07 May 2006 00:00

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, which offers trips starting from £1,335 per person, based on two sharing

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