Bolivia - Death Road Revisited / Copacabana photos
Dec 1, 2005
|I was on my way to Chile. Really. But when a good-looking Dutchman invites you to travel with him for a couple weeks, well, who could possibly resist an offer like that?? Definitely not me ... Hell no!!
Pieter the Dutchman (who I met on the Manu trip) is on a 6-month trip around the world. A little quick for my taste but, well, that's all the time he has. He was planning to tour through Bolivia and then cross into northern Chile, arriving at basically the same place I was headed, so we decided to hook up and travel through Bolivia and into Chile together.
Bolivia is one of my favorite countries in South America. I spent 38 days there last year. I had planned on returning, although certainly not at the accelerated pace that Pieter pushed us through, and I had actually thought to throw in a few new destinations. But the fact that I'd visited these places before, and knew my way around, made traveling together at a quick pace a whole lot easier. And there was at least one thing we did on this trip that I HADN'T done before ... which was go zooming down "The World's Most Dangerous Road" on a mountain bike.
But before I get into that, let me back up a bit ... after the Manu jungle trip, I went to Arequipa and Pieter hiked the Inca Trail. We hooked up again in Puno, a little town sitting on the Peruvian shores of Lake Titicaca (where I spent Christmas last year). From there we circled around the lake, crossed the border into Bolivia, and arrived in Copacabana, a cute little town sitting on the Bolivian shores of Lake Titicaca (where I spent New Years Eve last year).
We booked into a half-day boat tour to Isla del Sol, an island inside Lake Titicaca believed to be the birthplace of both the sun and the first Incas according to Inca legend. We had enough time before the tour for a quick snoop around Copacabana, and for a fresh trout lunch purchased from one of the vendors along the waterfront. The little old lady frying up the fish was dressed in typical Andean style - multiple layers of skirts and shawls and a cute bowler hat - and was wonderfully ditzy. There were 3 of us (Pieter, myself and Emma, an Aussie we met along the way) but she kept thinking we wanted in total one meal and one beer. It took us ages to explain that we wanted one meal and one beer EACH. Eventually all orders came, the food was delicious, and we happily gorged ourselves. The boat trip was relaxing, although in hindsight it wasn't such a good idea to drink a beer before sitting on a toilet-free boat for 1.5 hours. We visited the Inca Stairway at the south side of Isla del Sol where we all huffed and puffed our way to the top. A few brave souls drank from the Inca Springs, which I still think this is some weird fertility ritual. Next we visited another Inca ruin, Pilko Kaina, before returning to Copacabana from where we caught the evening bus to La Paz.
The last time I was in La Paz was 01Jan2005 and it was practically a ghost town. This time we experienced the full hustle and bustle that I had previously expected of the world's highest capital city. We toured the Coca Museum which has great information on the history of the coca leaf industry in Bolivia. We wandered around the various markets and plazas of central La Paz, and even came across a wedding at one of the churches we passed. Bullet holes are still visible in some of the buildings near the presidential palace, but I noticed that the legislative palace is looking all fresh and clean and bullet-free after its recent facelift (building was scaffolded on my last visit). And finally, strangely enough, we had a fantastic sushi dinner in La Paz.
The last time I traveled on the "World's Most Dangerous Road" from La Paz to Coroico I had been in a minivan, and even then I was scared. Let me refresh your memory ... this road is dubbed "Death Road" because it's mostly unpaved, bumpy, winding and narrow with sharp drop-offs and no shoulders, has waterfalls cascading onto it causing washouts and landslides, plunges over 3000 meters in around 80km, is frequented by big trucks, big buses and bad drivers, and sees more deaths per year than any other road in the world. Taking the "Downhill Madness" tour meant traversing this road on a mountain bike.
I had wanted to do this bike tour last year, but it was rainy season and reputable tour agencies were already shut down. Or at least I THOUGHT I wanted to do it ... but now that we were actually signed up, I'll admit to having some 2nd thoughts, and maybe even 3rd and 4th thoughts as well.
Morning arrived. We were transported by van to the beginning of our trip - the highest point from where the road plunges 3345 meters. "Downhill Madness" indeed. I was very nervous at the start, which is actually weird because it's the only part of the road with wide paved lanes. But it was raining, misty, cool, I hadn't been on a bike for over a year, and we were traveling at the speed of light for heaven's sake, even bending low over the handlebars for maximum speed ... yeah, like I needed more speed than what gravity was providing on this steep vertical descent! I was without a doubt the slowest; Pieter was way up at the front (what do you expect, he's from Amsterdam, he was practically born on a bike!). We continued at bullet speed for about 30km, then ran into a series of steep inclines and finally a rest break.
From there the nice smooth paved road disappeared, and we continued over the section that gives the road its bad name. Here you're literally hugging the edge of a road with nothing between you and a sharp drop-off, you're riding your brakes the whole time, and you have one lane for traffic and big trucks and buses coming at you in both directions. Strangely, this section didn't bother me as much as I expected, until I got distracted by the beautiful scenery and almost ran myself off the road. Okay Connie, let's stay focused here! I felt I did very well after that, only having very close encounters with: (1) a dog, (2) a pig, and (3) a very large truck. We stopped for lunch around 30km later. I could barely release my fingers from their handlebar death grip to pick up my sandwich, and then could barely raise it to my mouth with arm muscles that were already screaming despite having shocks on the front bike tire.
After cycling through a waterfall that was cascading onto the road, and which caused much screaming and laughter from our group, we continued over a section that was now thankfully a bit wider and less steep. We actually had to use the pedals for the first time in around 6 hours! It was also considerably drier and dustier and we were blinded and sucking in dust every time a vehicle went past. Now, whether it be good or bad, Pieter and I had already purchased tickets for the night bus to Potosi, so after a couple hours of eating dust, we had to stop cycling, hand the bikes over to the support vehicle, and hitch a ride back to La Paz in order to avoid missing our bus. At this point it was only around an hour before the end of the trip and my butt was looking for some relief anyway, so I was happy enough to end the tour here without feeling I was missing much, although it would've been nice to join the others for the celebratory lunch. At least we still got our "Death Road Survivor" T-shirts!
Within an hour of us arriving in Potosi we had booked tickets on the night bus to Uyuni, stored our backpacks at the bus station, took a taxi downtown, booked into a mine tour for later that morning, and were sitting in a restaurant enjoying breakfast ... not a bad bit of organization I'd say. The silver mine tour was very interesting, even 2nd time around for me. To be able to visit the actual operating mine, chat with the miners, see the terrible working conditions, and breathe in the noxious fumes (that actually lingered for days in your clothes, skin and hair) gives a rare and meaningful insight into the life of the miner and the hardships they face daily (have a look at my Bolivia entry from last year if you want more history on Potosi and the silver mine, or on any of the other places I'm mentioning in this story). And, I know this sounds cheesy, but buying and then blowing up our own dynamite after the tour was still a novelty. It was also nice for me to briefly reacquaint with some of the tour guides (including my very surprised friend Pedro) and miners that I had met last year at the Miner's Carnival.
Salar de Uyuni
We had already booked our tour through an agency in La Paz, so we efficiently arrived in Uyuni, caught a few hours sleep, and walked to the agency office to start our tour. On tour with us were a young French-Canadian couple and two girls from Holland ... so our group was an even representation of 3 Dutch and 3 Canadians. The last time I did this tour it was rainy season and the salt flats were under water, so for me it was nice to see the salt flats this time in dry season when the evaporated water creates beautiful geometric shapes in the salt surface. Otherwise the tour was basically the same ... we saw the same dead train cemetery, same high altitude flamingos, same one-llama towns, same lakes of beautiful green and red, same endless Andean plateau scenery, same geysers. But unlike last year when I returned to Uyuni at the end of the tour, this time we crossed the border into Chile and the tour ended in the sleepy little town of San Pedro de Atacama.
So, in just 7 days we covered around the same amount of turf in Bolivia that I had covered in around 3 weeks last year. I wouldn't want to travel this quickly on a regular basis, don't know how Pieter does it, and I have to admit I was basically exhausted by the time we finally arrived in San Pedro! But that's okay, I'm still planning on returning again to Bolivia, not at the accelerated pace that Pieter pushed us through, and next time I definitely plan to throw in a few new destinations.