Cycling Bolivia’s Death Road: a ride of a lifetime

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I’ve never been one to take life lightly, so I don’t know why I decided to dabble with death on a whim.

It was my third day in Bolivia and I’d journeyed three hours out of the frenzy of sky-high La Paz to Coroico, a subtropical little muddle of a town perched on a mountaintop in the North Yungas region.

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There, late one night after the dregs of a bottle of syrupy Bolivian wine had been drained, two angel-faced Germans propositioned me. “Tomorrow we’re cycling the Death Road. Come with us?” they coaxed. So I did.

I then knew little about the notoriety of ‘el camino de la muerte’; a dramatically steep, perilously narrow dirt track that coils around an Andean cliff face between La Paz  and Coroico. Starting at 4,800 metres and plunging to 1,200 metres in just 40 mile, it gained its macabre nickname due to the high frequency of Bolivian buses tumbling off its edges into deep gorge and tangled vegetation below.

Some 300 annual fatalities were reported in the 1990s and it was then that the camino gained its title as The World’s Most Dangerous Road. When a new route was paved to redirect buses in 2007, the abandoned Death Road was claimed by thrill-seeking cyclists looking to test their nerves on a heart-racing, downhill descent. And apparently, I was to become one of them.

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We set out early in the morning with heads as heavy as the thick rainclouds that masked the Andean peaks looming around us. In Coroico’s central square we met our guides; a pack of excitable young locals who clambered nimbly about a beat-up minivan to secure mud-encrusted mountain bikes to the roof. With them we drove more than an hour up the vast, winding valley with hearts fluttering and heads bobbing to their blaring, base-heavy music and the thuds of the rutted mountain road.

bikes Our starting point awaited us with biting cold and drizzling rain. Fitted with knee pads and helmets, we set out into the gloomy abyss.

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The first thing I noticed was the sheer bumpiness of the whole experience. My entire body shook as I navigated my thick wheels over pieces of jagged rubble that had tumbled down the mountainside. White knuckles clasped to the handlebars, I focussed on steering around the potholes, only daring to snatch a few desperate glances over the vertical drop beside me. A series of flower-strewn graves dotted along the cliff edge were an ominous warning of the fate that awaited me if, even for a second, I lost concentration.graveAt some point my grip loosened, the rain ceased and the clouds lifted. I became aware of the spectacular countryside around me, now illuminated in celestial sunlight. Picking up speed, we raced our guides around hairpin turns, under gushing waterfalls and over rickety bridges with reckless and ecstatic abandon. In the lush. lower terrain, colourful butterflies danced around our handlebars and the humid air was heady with aromatic herbs that peppered the grassy verge.

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We crossed the finish line in the village of Yolosa to a chorus of cheers and shared a celebratory beer before returning to Coroico feeling nothing less than invincible.

On the way back, we passed a small crowd gathered along the roadside. Our driver rolled down the window and exchanged a few hurried mumbles. A minivan had shot off the side just minutes earlier, we learned.

The rest of the ride was spent in sober contemplation.While we may had conquered Bolivia’s most famous Death Road, others – less known but just as deadly – surely lay ahead.

Cycling Bolivia’s Death Road can be organised through various tour agencies in Coroico such as Barracuda Biking. Day tours also go from La Paz.

How to make empanadas (Argentine style)

empanadas

I’ve always prided myself on resisting fast food… until I discovered a certain weakness for empanadas. South America’s answer to the Cornish pasty, these crescent-shaped pastry bakes filled with meat or veggie goodness are sold by the bucketload in virtually every country across South America varying from place to place. I particularly like the Argentine versions which are baked rather than deep fried and are usually filled with beef, chicken or caprese (mozzarella, tomato and fresh basil) for non-meat eaters.

After munching my away around most of the empanada shops of Buenos Aires, I decided it was high time to perfect the art of baking them myself and so I booked onto the Tierra Negra cooking course. Run by professional chef Manu and his partner Veronica in their lovely home in Palermo Hollywood, the evening class was a laid-back, intimate affair that introduced us four wannabe chefs to a variety of regional recipes (emapandas, flan, ducle de leche and a spicy tomato salsa). Hands-on preparation was followed by a sit-down feast on at the end of the session. IMG_8297

While Manu took charge of the cooking, Veronica offered a tasting of three delicious Argentine wines from various regions (I use the term ‘tasting’ loosely as our glasses were constantly full and Veronica was quick to uncork another bottle once we’d drained the last). Needless to say, I left the class feeling recipe enriched and slightly sozzled.

The highlight for me, of course, was learning how to make empanadas. I was surprised how easy it was to whip up the dough from scratch and I loved how Manu used a combination of spices, boiled egg, olives, herbs and spices to make the meat filling so flavourful. The only fiddly aspect came right at the end when twisting the edges of dough to ensure the filling didn’t seep out and the finish was smooth involved some skill. Mine looked rather ‘homemade’ but still tasted delicious!

The recipe below is for beef-filled empanadas but can be adapted very easily – try experimenting with the filling or adding your favourite herbs and your empanadas will never taste the same twice. They make a great starter to a latino-themed meal or something to share between friends, with a bottle or two of Malbec of course!

Empanada dough    

Ingredients (for 10 empanadas)

  • ½ cup water
  • 2 ½ tbsp oil (I prefer olive oil but you can use sunflower or corn oil)
  • 250 gr plain flour
  • 1 tsp sea salt

Preparation

  1. Mix the flour and oil in a large bowl and then add the water. You’ll probably want to start off with a wooden spoon but then use your hands to mix it well.
  2. Put the dough on the table and knead it for a good ten minutes until the dough has a really good elasticity.
  3. Cover the dough and allow it to rest for 30 minutes in the fridge.
  4. Remove the dough from the fridge, divide it and roll into 10 small balls.
    balls
  5. Sprinkle flour on a clean surface and use a rolling pin to roll out the balls so they are flat, thin and circular. You can then stack them by using flour in between so they don’t stick together.

Beef filling

Ingredients (for a batch of 10-12 empanadas)

  • 500 gr of diced or ground organic beef
  • 3 medium-sized onions
  • 4 spring onion, green part only
  • ½ cup pitted green olives
  • 3 hard boiled eggs
  • 6 tbsp butter
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tbsp chilli flakes
  • 1 tbsp ground cumin
  • 2 tbsp paprika
  • 1 tbsp oregano

Preparation

  1. Melt the butter and the oil in a large saucepan on a medium heat and sweat the diced onions with a pinch of salt until they turn translucent.
  2. Stir in all of the spices and cook for another minute.
  3. Add the beef and cook fully. The mixture should be moist but not dripping so drain off any excess liquid.
  4. Combine the spring onions, stir and season before turning off the heat.
  5. Add the olives and the roughly chopped eggs (If you are planning to keep the filling for the next day then the eggs can be added the following day).
  6. Lie the dough circles flat on a clean surface and fill with about two tablespoons of the beef mixture. Be sure to leave room around the edges for the dough to be folded.
  7. Wet the edges of the dough with water and fold over into a semi-circle to enclose the filling. Use your finger to seal the edges. Wet one end and twist into shape.
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  8. Brush the empanadas with egg before baking at about 200 degrees for ten minutes or until golden before serving.
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Insider tips!

  • Rolling the dough edges differently helps differentiate the various fillings. The meat filling is usually braided by twisting the dough at the edges while the caprese is tucked at the edges into a bow shape. To do this, instead of twisting, pull the two sides together so they meet before sealing.
    caprese
  • After mastering the standard fillings, try variations such as blue cheese, mozzarella and celery or tuna, onions, red and green peppers. You can also change the white flour for a healthier alternative such as corn or quinoa flour.

El Boliche de Bessonart, San Antonio de Areco, Argentina

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From the outside, El Boliche de Bessonart looks almost derelict. Its flaking stone walls jut out from the corner of a dark, dusty street a little way from San Antionio de Areco’s cobbled central plaza. I dawdle awkwardly by the door before finally venturing in.

Inside, the no-nonsense tavern has that kind of rustic pizazz that trendy hangouts can only dream of replicating. Time-worn scuffed paint reveals the roseate brick behind and the floor is bare and tiled. There are wrought-iron chairs, wicker stools and a long oak counter backed by old liquor bottles caked in dust. I like how the black-and-white photos covering the walls all hang a little off-centre and that soft chacarera music plays in the background to lighten the mood.

shelvesI score a table at the back of the room and the barwoman brings me a glass brimming with red wine and a basket of monkey nuts. She tells me the bar is more than 200 years old and has been preserved as a historic vestige. A handful of couples and groups of friends scattered around the room eye me with a mix of suspicion and sympathy. ‘I’m fine,’ I want to tell them. ‘Content to sit and drink. And eat monkey nuts.’

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My attention is held by three gauchos standing at the bar. I’ve only read about these archetypal Argentine cowboys that live on remote ranches and pass their time on horseback exploring the vast, flat pasturelands of the pampas. Now, in the gaucho heartland of San Antonio, I get to see them in the flesh.

The men exude a raw, no messin’ machismo. Shirts tucked, sleeves rolled, their hands hang heavy on the pockets of their low-slung jeans buckled with sturdy leather belts. One sports a scraggy mullet, another a flat cap that resembles a misshapen beret but is in fact part of the traditional gaucho costume. They slouch and squint and glug beer and exchange few words.

barwoman

A couple walk in. You can tell they are tourists, like me, with their bright
t-shirts and shiny cameras. “We’re from Buenos Aires,” the guy tells me while his girlfriend is at the bar. When she goes to the bathroom he hastily scribbles down his number and passes it to me. I gawp in only slight disbelief. Typical Argentine chamuyero – charmer.

Drink drained, and with a lap full of nut shells, it’s time for me to leave. My head may be clouded by Malbec, but I’m pretty sure this is my favourite ever bar. And in my next life I hope I come back as a gaucho.

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San Atonio de Areco is two hours from Buenos Aires. For recommendations on what to do in the capital read my post here.

Back in Buenos Aires: the highlights

Buenos Aires. There’s something about this city that gets under your skin. Whether it’s the melancholy of the discordant tango strains, the neglected grandeur of the old buildings or the seductive energy of the porteños and their singsong accents, be sure that Buenos Aires will linger on in your mind’s eye.

Memories of the city have certainly haunted me since I left here five years ago and I’ve been daydreaming about returning ever since. Then I was a 22-year-old student, a little lost in a big city, with a breezy attitude and better stamina for late-night carousing. Now that I’m finally back I find myself ambling along familiar streets but still a little lost – this time in a haze of nostalgia for my former self and my past life here.

Luckily the city hasn’t changed so much, and all my favourite haunts are still here to welcome me. Here are a few places I’ve come to love in the city….

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Pillow talk in…Home Hotel
For my first night in Buenos Aires, I treated myself and checked in to this lovely boutique hotel in the trendy Palermo Hollywood barrio. It’s definitely worth the splurge. Decorated in calming neutrals that reflect its green ethos, the hotel has spacious rooms, a spa and restaurant – a popular lunch spot for locals – where guests also have breakfast. The real showpiece though is the patio area, where a cocktail bar and ubiquitous parrilla (the outdoor grill every self-respecting Argentine has in their backyard) look out onto verdant gardens overgrown with giant tropical plants and a gorgeous swimming pool. It’s an oasis of calm that feels far removed from the busy city.
Home Hotel, Honduras 5860, Palermo Hollywood

home

Seek solace in…Libros del Pasaje
I love the atmosphere of this old-fashioned bookshop, with its high bookshelves stacked with eclectic tomes – reachable by hopping on the rolling ladder. I usually sidestep the erudite browsers and make a beeline for the back of the bookshop where a little café serves homemade cakes and tangy, mint-infused lemonade as well as more substantial meals. Relax into the deep leather armchairs with a book and a glass of Malbec or head out into the light-filled conservatory where customers sit with knitted eyebrows, a coffee and their laptops.
Libros del Pasaje, Thames 1762, Palermo Soho

Libros de viaje!

Stroll in…San Telmo market
It may be touristy, but for me San Telmo’s Sunday fair still conjures up much of the magic and intrigue that I first loved about this city. Makeshift stalls stretch all along Calle Defensa, backed by gently crumbling stone facades. Vendors sell all kinds of knick-knacks; leather wares, handmade jewellery, gaucho paraphernalia and decorative fileteado painted signs. The drama crescendos on Plaza Dorrego where crowds cluster around tango performers and there’s a jumble of stalls offering more authentic antiques. The best time to come is late afternoon, when there are fewer people and you can dine in style…with a choripan (chorizo sandwich) from a street vendor of course.
Feria de San Telmo, Defensa y Humberto

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Go green in…Bosques de Palermo
When I want to escape the city grime I head for this park – officially known as Parque Tres de Febrero. Dotted with palms and jacaranda trees, it’s got a beautiful lake where lovers and families take out row boats and pedalos. At the weekend, the park is packed with locals sitting and drinking mate, feeding the often-ferocious swans or circling the park on rollers skates. For a more serene setting, find a bench in the well-manicured rose garden at the heart of the park.

park

Have a cocktail at…Frank’s
‘Coffee’ I stammer rather unconvincingly to a stern looking doorman. Thankfully he nods and moves a side. A girl in a tight-fitting black number is there to greet me and reveals a code to dial in the phone box as the back of the room. I pick up the phone and punch in the code before pushing the back of wall behind me, as ordered. It leads down a dimly-lit corridor to the famed 1920s-themed speakeasy that is Frank’s. Inside, it’s dark and sultry with tiered chandeliers and beautiful people drinking killer cocktails served by barman in dickie bows and suspenders. Gimmicky? Yes definitely. Verging on the ridiculous? I’d say so. But darn, it’s fun. And don’t those cocktails taste good.
Frank’s, Arévalo 1443 Palermo (ask for the password via the facebook page)

Franks

Having mainly eaten my way around the city, wait for my next blog post on eating out recommendations.