27 November 2011

Bolivia day 12: I survived Death Road!!!


My itinerary said nothing about risking my life!

It simply said: ‘In less than 3 hours’ drive, and after an amazing trip full of gorgeous sights, the Yungas Valley is reached, where the most exotic and delicious fruits are grown.’

In fact, from the 8am pick-up to the 12.45pm drop-off at the hotel in Coroico for lunch, was a 4¾ hour drive, with a few short stops here and there, and I never did see any exotic and delicious fruits. But what a drive!

First, we wound up through housing perched precariously on the clay cliffs above the city, then on to a road between high hills that looked like they’d been carved by glaciers eons ago. We passed a dam whose reservoir supplies most of La Paz’s water, though its level is currently low, awaiting the onset of the rainy season to replenish it. We passed an area of small shops selling mattresses stuffed with the tufty mountain grass that grows so plentifully at these altitudes. And we passed vans stuffed full of mad young people about to risk their lives on the mountain bikes propped atop the vans by biking Bolivia’s infamous Death Road.

The highest point on our journey was soon reached – 4700 metres above sea level. It is marked by a statue of Christ, around which were scattered empty alcohol bottles and the remains of fires. If the guide hadn’t told me these were offerings to Pachamama, I would have thought it was the remnants of some drunken party! We passed two small towns, Pongo and Unduavi; the second was a breakfast stop for our driver while I wandered up and down taking photos. Up to the right you could see the reverse side of Mururata, the flat-topped snow-covered mountain that towers above La Paz.


Mountain bikers prepping for their ride

The road to Coroico

Mt Mururata

About 50kms from the city, we turned off the wide, new, tarsealed road on to a dirt and gravel road, the old road to Coroico, the aptly named Death Road! It was narrow, hair-raising and bumpy; at times stomach-churning for someone who doesn’t particularly like heights because the drop to one side was often vertical for a thousand feet or more; sometimes wet and greasy from waterfalls cascading directly on to the road from the towering cliffs above; often scary negotiating unstable narrow tracks across huge rockslides that had wiped out whole mountain sides.

My heart was in my mouth for almost the entire 20kms we stayed on the road, except for the couple of times I walked a short way so my guide could take photos of me standing above sheer drops. I was so much more comfortable with my feet on the ground and I would, in fact, have been very happy to have walked the road, as it was all down hill and the views were spectacular. One particularly wet part had been nick-named St John Baptiste, as the mischievous truck drivers who used to carry people up this road would pause there a minute or two, thoroughly wetting their passengers.

Me checking out the sheer drop
- but not too close!
The size of the truck gives a good
indication of the size of the cliffs



















We saw plenty of evidence of why the road got its name – the roadside crosses are numerous! Now, the road is mostly only used by tourists and mad mountain bikers, and over-jealous bikers are the only ones who die on the road. We were passed by many adrenalin junkies, and saw one injured, luckily not badly as he’d skidded to the right side of the road, not over the edge!

We eventually emerged into the Yungas Valley, where much coca is cultivated in small plantations at the side of the road. There is supposedly a lot of wildlife in the area, though I saw only a few butterflies and, later, on the road back, some large birds of prey – Caracaras and Andean vultures – no monkeys or parrots.

Some pretty butterflies
A coca plantation


Coroico is a small town of around 10,000 people, clinging to the steep hillsides amidst lush vegetation. Its climate is semi-tropical and it was hot, about 30°C. It exists as a retirement place for the rich of La Paz and as a weekend vacation spot. I was surprised to see a few black people there, especially one older woman who looked somewhat incongruous dressed in traditional Bolivian costume, complete with small bowler hat perched on her frizzy hair. These blacks are the remnants of the African slaves who were brought to Bolivia by the Spanish in the 16th and 17th centuries to work the silver mines at Potosi.

 In the distance, Coroico


Lunch was delicious, at a posh but empty hotel: palm hearts with tomato and lettuce salad; peanut noodle soup – a local favourite; some kind of breaded meat with chipped potatoes and coleslaw; and rich and refreshingly cold chocolate ice cream! No wonder Tony kept knodding off during the two-hour drive back to La Paz – I could’ve done with a siesta as well, but didn’t want to miss a moment.

The drive back was on the ‘new’ road – it was actually begun in 1935 by prisoners of war. They were from the last war fought by Bolivia: the bloody Chaco War with Paraguay from 1932-1935 over a disputed piece of territory. The road is an impressive piece of engineering, needing constant repair, as it winds up and over the mountains. Some sections are cantilevered out over deep precipices, and there are several tunnels, one of which is perhaps a kilometre long, directly through a mountain top.

As we neared La Paz, the weather began to close in behind us, with mist and low cloud swirling eerily around. I was so glad we had enjoyed fine clear weather earlier in the day and, though I was exhausted from the nervous tension of the journey, I was also happy to have seen such stunning landscapes, and to have travelled such a treacherous road and survived!