Sunday, 29 June 2014

‘The Death Road’ (Camino de la Muerte) & Coroico

By Mark

We left La Paz bound for Coroico, a small village 100kms north of La Paz, via what has become known as ‘The Most Dangerous Road in the World’ or ‘The Death Road’. The road is now less dangerous as the road is only really used for tourists doing mountain bike tours and the odd motorcycle. A new highway was built about 9 years ago that now by basses this road. Before this however this was the only way into the Yungas from La Paz.

The road was built back in the 1930’s by Paraguayan prisoners caught in the war between Bolivia and Paraguay. The width of the road ranges from 2.9m to 3.5m with sheer vertical drops ranging in height from 280m to 800m. It is also the only road in Bolivia where you drive on the left hand side and you have to giveway to traffic heading up the mountain. When the road was open to all traffic before the new highway was built, there were numerous accidents with as many as 200 – 300 people losing their lives each year. Hence why it became known as The Death Road. But as I mentioned, the road now has many guard barriers and is mainly open to descending traffic, however we did just hear that a mountain bike guide was killed just the other day after a head on Collision with a car coming up the mountain.

As we dropped down from La Cumbre at about 4700m we descended into one big cloud filling the valley. It started with just a bit of cloud but the further we descended we became completely engulfed in thick fog to the point that we could not see more than 10m in front of us, it became very cold and quite wet at that point. We made it to the turn off for The Death Road where we ran into at least 3 mountain bike tour companies who were about to descend into the abyss. We quickly took some photos and shot off ahead off them as to not get caught up with them all the way down to the town of Yolosa at 1200m, which marks the end of the road.
As we made our way down the wet and muddy road a feeling of disappointment rushed through me. I had known about this road for years and know how perilous it is and how well known it is for the sheer vertical drops lining the roadside... and all I could see was cloud. A complete whiteout everywhere we looked but as we descended the eeriness of it all took over and I took it for all that it was worth. Along the road we also came along a few waterfalls that actually fall down onto the road, it is in this particular location where many lives have been lost. The road is narrow and with water falling constantly on the edge of the road and the weight of a vehicle passing by on the edge it has been known to collapse and take many lives. All along the road side are crosses and memorials to all the people who have lost their lives. A somber reminder to all that travel this road.

As we slowly descended out of the cloud we were greeted with extensive views of the beautiful lush green valleys of the Yungas. We hoped that we had left the cyclists behind but each time we stopped to take photos they would catch up to us. Well at least we had the engine between our legs to pass them over and over, however it made it harder to get good footage to make another short film. The further down the mountain the temperature started to rise and we were looking forward to hanging out around here for a few days. Towards the bottom of the hill the road became a lot less dangerous and the vertical drops of the road side became smaller and smaller. The road became dusty and we arrived safe and sound at the bottom in the village of Yolosa. To be honest, I was never scared of this road. We have ridden many more dangerous roads in Bolivia and other countries such as Nepal. I was however very happy to have had the chance to ride it anyway. We watched the hordes of tourists load their bikes back onto the roofs of the buses before we took off to our next destination of Coroico. We had heard good things about this place but as we arrived the town looked a  little run down and in need of some TLC. We rode around looking for a place to stay and finally decided on a cheap little place just up from the plaza. What the town lacks in good looks is completely made up for in surrounding beauty. The town sits high overlooking numerous valleys with incredible views back up towards The Death Road and also the new highway and numerous mountains lurking behind in the distance.

We decided to stay a few days after all. It was my birthday while we were here and with not many other large towns around, this would be the best place to celebrate. Our days were spent lazing around town, taking in the scenery and also sadly watching Australia be defeated by the Netherlands in the world cup and in all places we watched the game in a Dutch run bar!
The day of my birthday was kicked off just right with breakfast in bed, then we looked outside and found the entire town engulfed in one big cloud, looked like I had been a bad boy with weather like this. Luckily as the day warmed up, the clouds separated and we were off for some zip lining (flying fox) fun across the valleys. We got a lift in one of the local mini buses for the very rough 20 min drive back to Yolosa where we would take another vehicle up to the start of the the Zip line. There are 3 lines in total measuring a distance of 1555m, at heights up to 250m above the ground and of speeds up to 85km p/h. I Can’t remember the last time I went on one of these but it was definitely not this long, high or fast. The zip line passes over the last bit of the death road before Yolosa and a large river that many locals are trying to find their fortune in as it is meant to be rich in gold in this region. It was great fun but the down side was that it was over way too quickly. Would have loved to have had another go but with our ever diminishing bank account we have to watch what we spend. Time to head back to town for a few beers instead.

While waiting a very long time for a minivan to take us back up the steep and bumby road back to Coroico we got chatting to a local coca farmer. At first we were speaking Spanish to him and then all of a sudden the young guy breaks out speaking to us in perfect English, not something you find everyday in Bolivia especially in small villages. He openly talked about coca production in the area and how much he earned per kilo, he also basically told us that all the coca produced in the area would go on to be turned into cocaine. As far as I am led to believe that for all the coca produced in Bolivia 60% will be used for the manufacture of cocaine.
My birthday ended with more beer and pizza, but nothing too rowdy as we had decided that if the weather was good we should go do The Death Road again. The following day did not disappointing, the sun was shining and there was not too much cloud about. We hit the road early to make sure we would be in front of the mountain bikers. Halfway up the new highway however I managed to get another puncture, again on the front tyre! Again Sanne was not looking in her mirrors and left me behind again to change my tube by myself. Sometime later she realised and came back looking for me fearing the worst, that I had been in an accident, no just the usual flat tyre! In no time we were up and running and sitting at the top of The Death Road, this time with not a tour bus or mountain biker in sight, YES! Also the road and valley was clear of fog and we were off again. The enormity of the depth of the valleys never really became apparent until we were here second time round with clear skies! The riding was easier as it was not so wet and also the filming was more possible as there seemed to be nobody else on the road except for us. We did pass a few nutters on mountain bikes who for some reason were riding UP the death road. That is one tough slog!

We managed to get some really awesome pictures second time round and found we made our way down much quicker also. As a motorcyclist in Bolivia we are exempt from paying road tolls, except on The Death Road where there is a 25bob ($4) charge to use the road which is only paid by tourists to keep the upgrade of the road. With the barriers in place to save lives we found this to be less dangerous than previous roads we have ridden but good fun all the same.

With time still to kill awaiting the arrival of Sanne’s new passport we left the valleys and jungle of the Yungas behind and made our way for Lake Titicaca, the largest lake in South America.

Looking down the valley towards the Yungas from La Cumbre pass

The sign says it all

Our first time down we were engulfed in a thick cloud

Looking into the abyss, chicken dance style

If the thick fog didn't make it feel eerie enough, the many crosses definitely did

The point of the road where most deaths have occurred

Finally a view of the valley

The town of Coroico

Beautiful and lush and thankfully a little warmer for us

One happy birthday boy, one not so happy worker!

Flying fool

Another happy punter, and a still unhappy worker!

Locals attempting to strike it rich panning for gold in the river

Second time round on the death road and this time we had perfect weather

This time we could actually see what we were riding

There are still the odd few trucks that make it down the old road, but not a lot of space to pass these guys

Sanne being brave and taking in the scenery of the valley

That's me trying to be brave

There is a few waterfalls by the road and this is where most accidents happen

Not an easy place to be building a road in the steep mountain sides

An incredible view from Coroico. Overlooking the new highway in the centre and the death road running up the left valley

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