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Published: June 28th 2012
‘Death Road’ or ‘The World’s Most Dangerous Road’ or ‘Coroico Road’ or ‘The North Yungas Road’ or whatever you want to call it, is no doubt one of the more spectacular roads to hurtle down on a mountain bike. Back in the mid-90’s an assessment was made of the road as the most dangerous one in the world, due to averaging somewhere in the vicinity of 400 deaths per year. As soon as this announcement was made, a wily Australian decided that such a name created a virtual goldmine of tourist cash, so he got himself some mountain bikes and advertised a ride down the world’s most dangerous road as a tourist attraction for those who were game. Many were and now the number of mountain bikes on the road far outnumber the four wheeled vehicles. In fact, a new, safer road has since been constructed, but some locals still use the old road and a fortnight before my arrival a car was found with four bodies in it, having slipped off the edge to certain death. For whilst this activity is a money-spinner (the cost is exorbitant for Bolivian prices), the road is still open to traffic and is indeed
dangerous. If you misjudge a corner, then the term deadly-treadly would be all too accurate. In fact, 19 tourists have died during their cycling endeavours and the injury toll must be huge, as every night in my hostel in La Paz I met people who were limping or displaying quite painful injuries from falling off their mountain bike on the way down. Over the 70km journey, you drop roughly 3,500m (starting at 4,650m above sea level) into lush rainforest. The sumptuous views really do make it hard to concentrate on the road itself, which is an unsealed and rocky surface devoid of guard rails with numerous 600m sheer drops, whilst occasionally confronting you with a waterfall just to add some extra difficulty to a narrow and slippery section. Still, all’s well that ends well and when we got to the bottom, the first thing we did was buy some beers to celebrate cheating death. We then took these beers up to the zip lines which traverse the rainforest valley and for a bit more adrenalin, set off face-down on 1.5kms of zip-lines, flying across the valley at 85km/h with the trees and valley floor 200m below!
La Paz itself
is an enormous city with what must be just about the highest airport in the world. The main city is located in a bowl, surrounded by impressive mountains that take many days to climb. Above the bowl is another city with the same population as La Paz, but just located even higher up on the altiplano. La Paz seems to be fond of pollution, car horns and cheap thrills, whether it be alcohol, drugs or watching women wrestle on a Sunday afternoon! The Cholitas (indigenous women who still wear traditional dress) can be seen everywhere in the western regions of Bolivia and La Paz is no different, except in La Paz a few of them wrestle for entertainment, in the Mexican wrestling style (Lucha Libre). It’s all for a laugh, but don’t dare make a gesture at one of them, or you will find yourself part of the action, with all manner of things being thrown at you. Whilst on the topic of throwing objects at spectators, one day a group of us went to watch Bolivia take on Chile in a football/soccer match that was a World Cup qualifier. I have never heard such abuse hurled before, let alone
witnessed bottles and anything else at hand be thrown in a stadium. Since Chile took Bolivia’s coastline in a war, Bolivians have never really forgiven them and most of the chants made reference to Chilean people as thieves (that’s the politest chant that I heard). Chile won 2-0 so at the conclusion of the match it all got pretty ugly, with even the Bolivian police throwing objects from the top tier of the stadium down to where the Chilean fans were seated, ironically waiting for a police escort!
After doing everything in my power to destroy my health in La Paz, I decided to head to Colca Canyon in southern Peru to try and purify my soul. En route, I stopped off at Lake Titicaca and had another wild night, this time in Copacabana on the Bolivian side of the lake. I had been travelling with a group of seven other people for the best part of a fortnight, from the moment we all met in Rurrenabaque to spend a few days in the jungle, spotting wildlife such as huge Caiman crocodiles, sloths, pink dolphins (which were really ugly!) and an abundance of birds and monkeys. We also went
piranha fishing, searching for anacondas and drinking 96% alcohol, mixed with coffee and Coke! (That concoction, made by our longboat driver, really knocked us around!) By chance, the eight of us had turned up at the same tour operator’s office in Rurrenabaque and realised we had all met each other in one country or another over the past five months, so there was much fun to be had as one motley group of gringos. Now, where was I? Oh yeah, Copacabana, where I saw the night sky lighten in the morning due to the birthday revelry for one member of the group. This night even involved the birthday boy and I taking over the instruments of a gypsy jazz band in one of the bars in town and playing sing-a-long songs for an hour or so! Oh, this reminds me of the night in a club in La Paz when I told the DJ that his music was terrible and plugged in my own iPod, which finally got people dancing and having a good time. The DJ, upon seeing this, promptly stormed out in a huff, leaving me to spin some tunes until I took myself home to bed. Oops,
I’ve gone and got side-tracked again…So, much fun was had on our only night in Copacabana, but the boat journey to Isla del Sol was a trial that I struggled to endure, so I took up the option of sleeping on the hard floor of the vessel to ride out my hangover.
Isla del Sol was a place of immense spiritual significance to the Incas, as they believed it was the birth place of the sun, their most revered deity. At the northern end of the island are the expansive ruins of an Inca temple, so we walked there as a group and wandered around its maze-like structure, even taking the time to pause and play some songs on charango and harmonica, overlooking a tranquil bay at dusk. From here we returned to the village, which is yet to be hugely altered by the tourist trade. The adults all seem to be either working the terraced land (a throwback to the Incas) or fishing, so the village is run by children. I am not joking! As we alighted the boat, a plethora of children whose age is still measured in single digits accosted us, settled us into our lodgings
and so on. For dinner, we found an open restaurant near the harbour, where every patron was served by a boy who may or may not have reached the lofty age of 10. The following morning, our breakfast was served by two girls, the oldest one (about 9) teaching the younger one (about 6) the ropes of serving breakfast to foreigners. One member of our group remarked that the island village was akin to stepping into a real life ‘Lord of the Flies’. I tended to agree.
We spent the day walking from the northern reaches of Isla del Sol to the southern harbour, where we noticed rapid construction to accommodate all of the tourists who must visit this section of the island. The vistas from the ridge of the island are nothing short of breathtaking, with the lake spreading out like a sea on all sides, with the only sight of the mainland being the unparalleled Andean peaks, glistening like beacons to the heavens due to the eternal snow that adorns their competing summits. It was with this backdrop that our travelling horde split into two smaller groups, with some heading to Cusco and the others heading to
Puno, Arequipa and Colca Canyon, where I was pinning my hopes on spending some quality time trekking in nature and restoring the balance by bringing some healthy pursuits back into my daily life.
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