The coati, Mr Bean, and the World’s Most Dangerous Road

At “T” minus seven, I was really thinking that we’d made this trip one week too long; with our patience depleted, and our curiosity lagging, it seemed we were just marking time until we could go home. But La Paz was cool and wet, as usual, and the idea of spending Easter weekend somewhere lower (warmer) was undeniably appealing.

Coroico, in the steep, lush valleys of the Yungas, seemed like a good choice. There are swimming pools there, which suggests a good time. Unfortunately, there are also “chuspis”, little biting bugs which look a lot like black flies (except that they are yellow) and leave a similar signature (a trickle of blood). Real party poopers those ones.  We encountered them immediately upon getting to the pool, and within minutes we had ceded the fight: okay, you win. We’re going inside.

And then it rained, and the power went out for most of two days, and there was really nothing to do. Because it was Semana Santa (Holy Week), there were lots of other visitors in Coroico, the majority of them Bolivians retreating from the big city. But the holiday seemed to be less about religious observance than it was about getting good and truly drunk. Two things, however, made the trip to Coroico worthwhile: one being a visit to the Senda Verde animal refuge, and the other being the chance to learn a bit more about Bolivia’s sacred leaf: coca. (I’ll write about that in the next – and last – post.)

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Senda Verde is actually in Yolosa, a short drive away from Coroico, at the bottom of the famed “World’s Most Dangerous Road”.  Being little more than one lane wide, and twisting and plunging as it does almost 4000 metres over a distance of some 90 km, the WMDR earned that moniker because of the exceedingly high number of plummeting-over-cliff-type accidents that used to occur there – something like one a week – until just a few years ago, when a new and much safer road from La Paz to Coroico was built. Now the old road sees mostly thrill-seeking mountain bikers, and for the dozens of mountain bike companies that lead organized trips down it, the title of “World’s Most Dangerous Road” serves largely as a brilliant tool for marketing, since the risk of biking it does promise a thrill, while not being truly extreme (except for those who are reckless and going way too fast, or who try to video themselves using their iPhones while riding. Sadly, a number of such cyclists have died in recent years while biking the WMDR – tragedies that didn’t have to happen.)

Quinn and I were seriously considering biking the road, but we left it to the end of the trip and the weather that last week was just too unpleasant to make the big-ticket item worth doing ($100 is a lot to pay if you can’t see that heart-stopping view for all the fog).

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But back to Senda Verde. Planned as an eco-resort, it only accidentally became a refuge after the owners started taking in first one, and then another, wounded or abused wild animal or bird that had been rescued from illegal possession and, frequently, abuse. Unlike at Parque Machia in Villa Tunari, the staff and volunteers at Senda Verde make no pretense of being able to rehabilitate these animals; they know the animals are much too conditioned to human contact (and/or emotionally scarred) to be able to make it on their own in the wild. Instead, they are cared for indefinitely, mostly by volunteers, both Bolivian and foreign. As a result, the animals are all right there, easy to see and interact with right up close. Which isn’t to say that you can cuddle the monkeys; many are downright dangerous, so much so that children under 10 years old aren’t even allowed on site. 169

Visitors are briefed on the do’s and don’ts of being around monkeys: DO let the monkeys climb on you if they want to; DON’T make direct eye contact (it challenges the social order); DO let them explore your pockets; DON’T let there be anything in your pockets for them to find, since they will never give it back (one tourist once lost $200 that way!); DO monitor your own emotional state (and leave if you need to) since the monkeys can sense fear and don’t like it; and DON’T reach out to touch or pet them, no matter how cute they look. Many bite.

With volunteers it is different, since part of their job is to give the monkeys the touching and cuddling they crave. But relationships first have to be built, which is why volunteers (who actually pay for the experience) stay at the refuge for a minimum of four weeks.  (Re: photo of monkey hanging by tail blocking path – the volunteer ahead was urging me to keep moving, but I couldn’t decide whether to pass on the bum side or the mouth side. Hmmmm)

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Felix had one monkey reach inside his pocket and then try to climb right up him. But he did exactly what he was told, remaining completely still and unreactive until a staff member pulled the monkey off him by the tail, handed him gruffly to an assistant and told her to put the monkey in the Shame Cage.

Aside from the monkeys, there were turtles and tortoises, a very friendly coati (South American relative of the raccoon), a toucan named Sam, and dozens of other birds, mostly macaws and parakeets. I was a little stunned and skittish when this little one (whose name is Mr Bean) landed on my shoulder and proceeded to lightly claw his way across my back and head! He even pooped right down the back of my shirt which, naturally, made me very happy. They say it brings good luck.

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There is an Andean Spectacled Bear at the refuge, but he only receives visitors at 10:00 every morning. Perhaps he is sensitive. He had had a bit of a traumatic experience a few weeks early when a column of army ants marched through. When that happens, the local people just open all their doors and windows and let the army ants through – “I think I’ll just go live upstairs for a few days…”  But somehow the bear got targeted and he freaked out so much he jumped right through the electric fence and ran away up the mountain. The volunteers had to go find him, tranquilize him to get him out of a tree, and bring him back to recover, standing guard to protect him from ants the whole time (and shifting their weight constantly from one foot to the other to protect themselves!).We watched several of the animals eating their dinner, which for the coati was a single raw egg which she appeared to play soccer with, dribbling it between her paws, before opening!  The birds mostly ate chunks of fruit and bird seed. We were entranced watching a macaw peel an orange, which he subsequently dropped on the head of an unfortunate duck waddling below. Big groan. (Oh, I should mention that oranges are green in Bolivia. So are mandarins, which are generally larger than most oranges. Lemons are orange and limes are yellow. Go figure.)

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Being at Senda Verde brightened our moods considerably, bringing back that rush of excitement and novelty that fuels the perpetual traveler. After Senda Verde, I felt truly sated. Our trip could end on a happy note after all.

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