La Paz Bolivia
Camino de la Muerte
Santa Cruz Bolivia
Back Home in California
Greetings from the World's most dangerous mountain road,
While Hurricane Felix pounded the Honduras mainland and the great tenor, Luciano Pavarotti was taking his final breaths, fearless Fred ventured down what has become known as the most dangerous road in the world. My sleepless night before the perilous journey included a night-mare featuring a bicycle sandwiched between a huge over loaded cargo truck and the precipitous edge of the narrow muddy road. Forced to stop I discovered my feet would not reach the ground and the only way to dismount the bike was away from the crowding truck and into the void. Sleep came in fits for the rest of the night.
Constructed in the 1930s during the Chaco War by Paraguayan prisoners, this mud highway has regularly been the instrument of death for travelers and adventurers plummeting down the shear precipice lining the road in many sections... into the mile deep gorges. Since the opening of the new bypass paved highway the first of this year the numbers have declined to a tiny trickle and those mostly attributable to stupid carelessness. Most vehicular traffic and all large buses and the huge overloaded cargo trucks are now banned from the narrow, hard packed dirt road that connects the administrative capital city of La Paz to the town of Coroico.
The 40 mile stretch of the old road has a reputation that lives on in the minds of thrill seeking adventurers around the world and most tour guides are anxious to encourage the mystique. Countless agencies will haul the fearless up to the top of the road where mountain bikes are provided for the gravity assisted descent to the bottom some 11,000 feet below... all for under fifty dollars. Survivors are presented T-shirts suggesting the great danger the wearer has endured and thus Magnifying the reputation of the Camino de la Muerte!
The truth is that since rerouting vehicular traffic, unavoidable dangers to bicyclists have all but evaporated. Travel agents in the know tell me this year no more than a handful of souls have lost their lives and all involved sleepiness, drunkenness, foolishness or bravado. But, I have traversed the infamous road and have lived to tell the story: my macho T-shirt proves it!
Picked up at 07:30 Wednesday morning by an Outbiking Bolivia minivan, I and four other twenty something European pre-med students headed up to the freezing snow dusted La Cumbre summit assembly area where a half dozen other groups were making the essential preparations for the four hour, 70 km descent to Coroico about 3500 meters below. Jacob and Wim (short for women, not wimp! he assures me.) are Belgium pre-dental students; Michael and Mathius are German pre-med students all here to face their mortality before being entrusted with the lives of others.
After nonchalant caution speeches from the company ride leader-bicycle mechanic Edwin, all four young men assured me they intended to take no chances that might endanger the lives of the rest of us, an assurance soon forgotten once on the bicycles. While not reckless, boys will be boys and I witnessed numerous maneuvers which could hardly be characterized as cautious. To make matters worse, Edwin with his years of experience leading groups down the hazardous road insisted on urging everyone to reach the bottom as fast as possible.
Fortunately, I had been offered the option of abandoning the bike for a comfortable seat in the van anytime I chose and managed to avoid most of the bicycle racing. Just as well as Juan-Carlos, our driver and part owner of the agency turned out to be a veritable encyclopedia of information about the lore of the road from the earliest days of truly hazardous bus and truck congestion to more recent times of bicycle only use. "Twenty years ago this road was the only way to reach the Yungas and the Amazon beyond. If you were coming or going to Brazil, you used this road. Big vehicle breakdowns were common and always created hazardous traffic tie ups. Once a huge overloaded truck broke it's drive shaft and we had to `borrow´ one from another truck of the same make to move the disabled vehicle. Once we got the disabled truck maneuvered so others could pass we reinstalled the drive shaft back on the original truck and the long line of backed up traffic again began to move. In one terrible accident, one of the two involved trucks managed to escape certain disaster, the driver barely saving himself at the last minute. So grateful this lucky man, he devoted the rest of his life to saving others traversing that particularly dangerous curve by serving as a volunteer flagman for the rest of his active life." Mile after mile Juan-Carlos related stories proving most myths from the Camino de la Muerte all had firm basis in facts from his own personal experiences.
While no one died during our run, the trip had it's share of mishaps. Fortunately, none of the rare uphill traffic appeared during our run. Several minor bicycle breakdowns occurred which Edwin promptly fixed using tools he carried in the front pouch of his wind breaker. About halfway down and just past what I named Dead-man's Curve we came upon one of the other groups stopped at the edge of the road peering over the side, an abandoned riderless bike lay on it's side next to the other still mounted riders. One of their group had gone over the edge. Fearing the worst, everyone in our group dashed frantically to the site to offer any needed assistance.
Providentially, Joe, a young American from Denver had chosen a spot with thick briars laced down the nearly vertical steep incline. They had broken his fall. As he scrambled up the bank with the help of his companions we all pounded him with questions about how it had happened and if he were injured. Almost proudly he displayed his scrapes, punctures and scratches and insisted "it was nothing." To our inquiries about the cause he answered "I was just doing some bunny hopping; you know, jumping over some of the bumps in the road and came down off balance on one of the many muddy spots." Fortunately for Joe that muddy spot occurred where it did because fifty feet either way and the thorny reception would have been replaced by a perfect place for base jumping! Study my photos for a visual confirmation of the near horror!
While the potential for danger most certainly continues to exist even with the road now used almost exclusively for downhill bike riding, it would be wrong to suggest this is the only attraction. From the freezing snow covered summit at the starting point to the sweltering tropical jungles near the bottom, this must be among the few places in the world where one could snow ski in the morning, race down a scenic winding dirt road and swim in a cool pool in an Amazon jungle lodge at the bottom.
More sedate tourists will no doubt choose other venues, but for those wanting something truly unique I can imagine few other choices comparable to this legendary expedition. My only disappointment was the absence of the supposed tunnels around the shear vertical face of stone cliffs highlighted in so many websites devoted to the Camino de la Muerte. They don't exist. Some mischievous soul added them to his description of the road using photos of the Guoliang Tunnel in the Taihang mountains of China and others blindly copied his imaginative fiction without checking the facts. For me this is serendipity; I can now plan yet another exciting travel adventure at some point in the future! (Actually, I made that trip the following year.)
After an adequate lunch in one of the resort hotels on the outskirts of Coroico we headed back using the recently completed paved highway. Speed bumps slowed traffic out of the town and I asked Juan what they were called in English translation. "Spring Breakers" he replied with a grin. During the fast two hour return trip our van encountered two narcotics inspections stations. We were not stopped at either. "What are the police looking for, cocaine?" I asked.
"Yes, though very little goes into La Paz. Most likely other contraband connected with the drug trade. In the other direction they look for ingredients used in the manufacture of cocaine: large quantities of lime, kerosene, sulfuric acid and plastic sheeting."
"Plastic sheeting?" I reacted.
"Yes. The producers use a very low-tech method involving scraping out a shallow bowl in the flat ground, lining it with a waterproof plastic sheet and then mashing the coca leaves in a slurry of kerosene by dancing on it... very hard on the feet of the people forced to do this kind of work." Juan went into more details about the sophisticated activities of the illicit drug activities common to the area. Evo Morales, the new president had himself been a cocalero and one of his first proclamations upon taking office was to significantly increase the size of the plot an individual farmer could legally work. Much coca growing is legal in Bolivia despite the fact the country continues to cooperate with the United Stated in its unpopular eradication program, a program that has devastated the economies of some regions.
It is now clear I have been suffering from MAS, Mountain Altitude Sickness plus increased nightly joint pains in my right leg. At first I failed to connect the symptoms with the known syndrome. Five days after arriving I started to feel normal. Some say it takes over a week at altitude for the body to adjust. All hotels up here provide coca tea for their guests. A friend informed me some also provide emergency oxygen as well. Native Bolivianos chew the coca leaves to relieve tiredness and headaches associated with MAS. It is also said to dull the sensations of hunger, but that hasn't been a problem for this gringo; great food in the hotel, cheap and lots of it.
The high Andean mountain range is no place to find a cup of gourmet coffee. As water boils at a tepid 85 degrees Centigrade in La Paz it is a wonder any thing produced by infusion is even possible. "Coffee" is made by diluting a coffee concentrate with some of that tepid water. I suspect these facts explain why Starbucks has not included La Paz in its plans to saturate the world.
Every afternoon it rains; actually sprinkles as little water accumulates on the ground. But it does discourage walking long distances from the hotel. All walks involve climbing steep hills because the Hotel Plaza is located at Av.16 De Julio at the bottom of a shallow bowl. That means the principle stress occurs at the beginning of every walk and always downhill for the return; perfect for this oxygen starved septuagenarian.
Sunday provided a glimpse of how Bolivianos get their exercise: marching in parades, sometimes at a run. Thousands of school children and their adult companions in colorful costumes marched up and down the main street of the city for hours. Between the morning and afternoon demonstrations downtown I witnessed a somber military parade around the Plaza de Armas (my photos). Loud marching bands accompanied hundreds of soldiers in colorful uniforms as they produced precision formations to the crisp commands of their officers. All the while an officer on the balcony of the Palacio Legislativo on one side of the expansive plaza delivered an hour long patriotic speech, culminating in a flag raising ceremony during which the assembled thousands of Bolivianos sang the country's national anthem. The speech, naturally in Spanish included words like "Chilianos," "Pacifica" and "victoria" so I presume this must have been a commemoration of the epic conflict with Chili in the late nineteenth century. As the Bolivians lost that war, I am wondering what aspect of the remembrance warranted such an emotional ceremony; possibly the bravery and sacrifice of all those ill fated Bolivian heroes. I tried to confirm my suppositions, but only got other equally questionable suggestions from my Spanish speaking informants, the most plausible being this is a regular monthly changing of the garrison compliment. Exuberant evening fireworks ended that particular Sunday, so loud and brilliant I thought it might be the opening volleys of yet another revolution in this land of so many revolutions!
Bolivia seems to have boycotted American vehicles; I have so far seen no American made passenger cars at all and only one Dodge school bus. There are very few private cars on the streets of La Paz, though the swarms of cheap taxis and vans make up for that lack. Juan-Carlos says American made cars don't hold up as well as Toyotas and that Bolivia has arranged to buy most of Japan's used cars at bargain prices... despite the fact that they arrive with right-hand steering. The cars are modified by moving the steering wheels over to the left side of the dash creating an awkward dash layout and limiting the left turning radius significantly.
This first week in Bolivia has been focused on La Paz and the surrounding region. I have walked a lot exploring many of the steep streets around the hotel (my photos), visited the Modern Art Museum (my photos) and the Ethnographic Museum with it's amazing masks collection (my photos). However, Bolivia has much more to offer and I intend to see it all... or as much as time will allow.
Fred L Bellomy
PS: About the most effective thing individual citizens can do about our government's abominable foreign policies is to let their Congressional representatives know how they feel... especially if they live in a state/district which supports the administration's current misadventures. F
PPS: Did anyone else happen to see the BBC debate this Saturday morning: Should we be talking to Al-Qaeda? The large audience of predominantly college students voted 2:1 in favor of the proposition after hearing the debate! The well informed participants made excellent arguments for both positions. F
El Camino de la Muerte is world famous as the most dangerous road in the world... a title earned for the 15 thousand fatalities which have occurred on it since it first became the only route between Corioco and La Paz some 70 years ago. Since the opening of a new all weather paved highway the first of this year 2007, traffic has been restricted to mostly bicyclists and their support mini-vans. Fatalities still occur, but mostly are the result of foolish inattention. I could confirm no more than four during the first eight months of 2007.