On Bolivia’s Coca Trail

High anxiety amid giant Tree Ferns and landslides in Bolivia’s little-traveled—and dazzling—Carrasco National Park

The trail ahead dissolved beneath a massive rock slide, a waterfall crashing through it. The only way across the chasm was over a fallen tree, dangerously slick with water. But one of our guides, a smiling, five-foot-two-inch Quechua coca farmer, didn’t flinch. “¡Todo tranquilo!” (“It’s all good!”) he said, and then—his cheek bulging with coca leaf, 50 pounds of gear cinched to his back in a hand-loomed llama shawl—he calmly walked across the tree trunk.

I placed a hesitant foot on the slippery log. Below, a fierce free fall onto shed-size boulders. To steel myself, I recalled why I’d come to Bolivia’s remote Carrasco National Park.

This was among the most spectacular, if treacherous, hikes in South America. I had lived in Bolivia for several years, and done a dozen “gringo” adventures, from the Machu Picchu Inca roads to the salt flats of Uyuni, but this place, Carrasco, remained almost undiscovered. The 40-mile hike follows a long-abandoned dirt road now overtaken by nature, and crosses four seasons in three days, from Andean snow fields at 14,000 feet, down into the Amazon basin. Our group of 12—biologists, park rangers, Americans, Bolivians—was among the first to attempt it.

We were led by six men from an indigenous tour agency called Kawsay Wasi. Farmers in baseball caps bearing Che Guevara icons, they’d been trained as eco-guides by Conservation International and the Bolivian National Parks Service. That was the theory, anyway. And they had hiked this route before. At least I hoped so.

I took a vertigo-inducing step across the fallen tree, willing my way forward with images of what lay ahead: exquisite quetzals, flaming-red orchids, and a walk in the Chapare coca fields.

The previous morning, we had driven away from the autumnal weather of Cochabamba, Bolivia’s third-largest city, in three pickups that climbed into the eastern Andes. Our drivers left us standing amid patches of snow, with sweeping views over the distant mountain-pierced clouds.

Snow?” I said to Cole Genge, the Bolivian American forestry expert who had organized the trip. He shrugged, and we shivered, ready to move. But our guides, on “Bolivian time,” were in no hurry. They huddled together to offer coca leaves and grain alcohol to Pachamama, or Mother Earth. Then they walked into the forest. We followed, dropping into the clouds, and were quickly surrounded by giant tree ferns—a prehistoric world soft with kelly-green moss and purple lichens.

Bolivia is one of the 17 “megadiverse” countries that contain 70 percent of the planet’s biodiversity; this hike would take us past some of Carrasco’s 5,000 vascular plants, and across land crowded with hundreds of bird species. At step one, we started searching for the blue-horned curassow, or unicorn bird—once thought to be extinct but recently seen in Carrasco.

When the sun sank, a silence thick with dread fell over our group. The guides couldn’t find a flat campsite. One hour tromping in the dark, then two. “Todo tranquilo,” a guide said, unconvincingly. Instead of watching wildlife, we now felt watched by it; Carrasco’s megadiversity includes megamammals like jaguars and large spectacled bears.

Finally we smelled smoke. The lead guides had found a flat spot, and giggled as they cooked. After dinner I squeezed into a tent with the six-foot-four-inch Cole. An animal’s screech pierced the night. Cole muttered, “Todo tranquilo.”

Three days in, we came to what I was sure would be an impasse: another mammoth landslide, but this time with no fallen tree for the crossing, and no going back—the night’s rain had swelled a river behind us. One guide let out a long, low whistle. Nobody moved. A harpy eagle soared overhead, and thunder rumbled in the distance. Finally, one of the guides made a decision: chew more coca! They loaded up on leaf, one of them boasting that the bulge in his cheek was “so big that it cast a shadow across the landslide.” Then they held out the bag to me.

Just say no was my first thought, however ludicrous. Coca, as Bolivians never tire of mentioning, isn’t cocaine. Chewing of the thumb-size leaf dates to pre-Inca times, and causes hardly more than a caffeine buzz. It takes about one pound of coca leaf to make one gram of the coveted white powder. But I desired sobriety whilst crossing a landslide.

The guides stepped into the landslide, and Cole and a Bolivian conservationist named Rodolfo stuffed their cheeks. “If you’re not on the edge,” Rodolfo said, buoyed by a macho coca-and-testosterone cocktail, “then you’re taking up too much space.” After a long, painful hesitation, I whimpered my way across.

Slowly, serenely, we dropped out of the hills and into the summer on an Amazonian plain, just outside the town of Villa Tunari. The last stretch of trail was through freshly planted coca fields (20 miles from a recent raid). A Bolivian drug-enforcement agent once described his job: “We eradicate the coca and burn the labs,” he said without irony, “then they plant coca and build labs again. Then we eradicate and burn.”

At the end of the road, I relented. Chuckling, the guides watched me press two dozen leaves into my cheek. The bitter taste mellowed into a mild buzz, and I was pacified by the thought that the planet still has places as utterly wild as Carrasco.