The road to Death is rather beautiful


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South America » Bolivia » La Paz Department » Yungas Road
February 22nd 2008
Published: February 26th 2008
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The Oruro madness winding up, I headed back to La Paz for some rest and recuperation, only to discover on arrival that in fact Carnaval happens all over Bolivia that week, and the capital city is no exception. After an age wandering around the bus terminalĀ“s taxis bedecked with multicoloured streamers, flowers and drunk taxi drivers hanging out of their car doors, singing tunelessly to Peruvian panpipe techno, I finally made my way to a hot shower. It wasn't all so uneventful however. The Carnaval spirit in La Paz also extends to the aggravating water balloons and shaving foam bombardments, with gringos being the prime targets, and toddling along with an enormous 17 kilos on my back down the main street of festivities suggested I shouldn't have been so eager to throw away my lurid yellow, plastic poncho.

La Paz is a great city, messy, chaotic and wonderfully Andean, with mamitas lumbering around the streets everywhere, in traditional bowler-type hats, large skirts flowing from substantial hips, long black plaits joined with lace at the tips, and carrying large bundles on their backs containing various assortments of tins, toilet rolls and small, mewling, snotty-nosed children with ruddy faces. Within this are mazes of cobbled streets winding up and down the sides of the valley into which the city is situated, and creeping up its sides. Your first view of the city is astonishing. Coming across waterlogged plains dotted with crumbling red adobe buildings, you would imagine the altitude to be somewhere near sea level, if it weren't for the regular fits of breathlessness and pounding headaches everyone is afflicted by. Suddenly, you reach a clearing in the garages and factories, and realise that in fact your bus is perched on a cliff edge that descends precipitously to several hundred metres below your current position. From the top of the Altiplano, La Paz fills the natural bowl of a valley between purple-red rocks and spiked mountain ranges, its centre being almost exactly one thousand metres below the airport and the road by which you enter. It means clouds and weather systems get caught within its contours, but also means that for much of the time you are above the weather and can watch it swirl around and below you.

One highlight of the several days I spent there was the Witches' Market, situated just behind my hostel. Along with the assortment of knitted, woven and sewn goods (of which I have already indulged in Cusco - it's all basically the same, though varying in price depending how guillible you appear), there were musical instruments, statuettes with extreme erections, all sorts of smelly charms and potions - and llama foetuses. They were of any size you could wish depending, I suppose, on how much luck you wanted, or how many evil spirits you felt your soul possessed by. Some were really tiny little things, with eyes still glued shut; others were almost full grown, just over a metre high, complete with fur. Garish and horrendous, I couldn't help but be enthralled about them, although no amount of bargaining, "special first-time discounts" and pleading mamita eyes would persuade me to challenge the Customs and Excises laws of the United Kingdom so brazenly. That said, on a trip to the Museo de Coca, I have picked up some coca leaf sweets for you all to savour upon my return, though if they taste anything like the leaves, one will be sufficient "for the experience" (of chewing cud).

La Paz wouldn't have been complete without at least attempting the infamous World's Most Dangerous Road, otherwise reassuringly named Death Road, on a bike. Now, those of you who know me will remember my aversion to all things connected to roads and vehicles (and driving instructors), extending to the mild panic you may observe when crossing as a pedestrian. On reflection, I'm not quite sure why I was so keen to hurtle down a subsiding mountain during the rainy season on a contraption for which I have always maintained the utmost disdain, preferring the security of my own two little feet in my mouldering walking boots. But I found a relatively cheap company (again, on reflection, perhaps worth spending a little more? Next time (HAH!) I would use Gravity, for those who are interested) who would guide me towards Purgatory. After a light breakfast of coffee and butterflies-in-the-stomach, we left at around 7.30am to drive up to 4700m above sea level, where we mounted our bikes beside a cold, frosty lake with a rolling landscape ringed by snow-capped mountains. In all, there were eleven of us. I was the only one under six foot (180cm), the only one under thirteen stone, and the only female. There were three Belgian firemen, a sprinkling of engineers and some Austrian hippies. My sense of nerves increased when I thought about what happens when so many Alpha-males get together to have a nice day out on Death Road. I imagined that they would all want to be right there at the front, carreering just behind the guide, gathering as much speed as they could so their slides and skids and jumps would be all the more impressive. I imagined that I would be far, far behind, wheeling nice and slowly with the guide at the back, taking photos and feeling like a bit of a reject for not flinging myself headlong into a canyon.

And unsurprisingly, that is exactly how it turned out. From the start I was indeed far, far behind, a little scared but confident enough on the new downhill section of the road. It was freezing, as we freewheeled through clouds and fog which swelled up from the valley floor, and my hands were so cold I could hardly change gears. We then swerved off the smooth, paved road onto the old Death Road, a stony, rough, pot-holed track that up to a few years ago had been the main route for buses, trucks and cars going to Coroico and I suppose further north. Apparently, back in the day, the route was so arduous, and the bus drivers impelled to drive for so long, that amphetamines were the common pick-me-up, which may be one reason for the number of rusting vehicle carcasses that dot the mountainside, and flower-laden shrines marking final resting places. At points, the road was just over a metre wide, parts of the surface broken and slipping down the sheer drop, with little waterfalls cascading over our heads and forming snaking rivers through the rocks through which we had to carefully steer. Our guide at intervals thoughtfully regaled us with stories of idiotic (male) tourists, playing around on the route and plunging to their deaths - one was trying to film himself going down, and caught his own death on camera; another two were having a race side by side, hit some rocks and to avoid bumping into each other, one swerved to the right into a rock face, the other swerved left off the cliff face; yet another (a girl this time) had advised the guide that her brakes were feeling wrong, but nothing was done, and as she came to a corner, flew right off the edge in front of the rest of the group, unable to stop. However, it is said that of the total number of deaths on this section, over half are Israelis fresh out of national service and feeling reckless. How true this is I don't know, but there were certainly a couple of points where our guides told us that "An Israeli went over here, over there, over yonder". I later met someone who had also done the ride, and she said that one of her group had taken a corner far too fast, and as the bike had slid out from under him, he fell off the side but had managed to grab some bushes to stop from falling too far, although he had broken his legs. Luckily, our ride was pretty uneventful, although a Brazilian slipped on some rocks on a corner and flew head first into the rock face, his bike plastered upside down beside him. He split his top lip and his chin, but I think the shock was more potent, as after that he was trailing behind even me. Three times the back brakes of some of the bikes broke, one of the guides having to continue riding on one with only front brakes remaining as they couldn't be fixed. I have to say that although I was terrified a lot of the time, I was going exceedingly cautiously, and consequently felt more or less safe. I did, however, kill a butterfly on the way down, for which I shall always be sorry, as well as swallowing a fly (I think there's a song in that). In all of four hours, we descended from 4700m above sea level, to 1200m, traversing cloudy mountains and arriving in humid, lush banana groves buzzing with sandflies and mosquitoes. The scenery was outstanding; the accomplishment - for me personally - was one of which I'll always be proud, though I think that from now on I'll limit my biking experiences to the Cambridge Fens, with my little bell and basket, even if I am wearing my super-naff T-shirt emblazoned with "Simply the BEST!!!! I survived DEATH ROAD!!!"

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