Death Roads Bolivia
Sep 11, 2003
David Rich 2000 Words
B o l i v i a ' s D e a t h R o a d s
I drove in and out on the Bolivian road they don't call the death road (only I call it that) and mountain biked the one they do. Judge for yourself which one is worse.
The road I call the death road runs 57 kilometers (34 miles) from Achacachi to Sorata, 20 kilometers up and 37 kilometers basically straight down from a high Andes pass to Sorata on the jungle's edge. I drove in on a gorgeous sunny day, four peaks over20,000 feet (6000 meters) glistening on the high horizon, recuperated an entire day and two nights, and drove back out in deadening fog and drizzle. Why do something so silly as to drive to Sorata if you're only going to recuperate from the drive in? Most people go because Sorata is the hiking, climbing and mountain biking mecca of Bolivia, seventy miles from the sprawling cacophonous capitol of La Paz, a scenic four-hour drive. But Sorata might as well be on another planet.
I tried a little chitchat with the military guard where the pavement ends at Achacachi, asking about the road to Sorata, but the kid with the machine gun was as dumb as a post, a whole army post. Clearly this was the road to Sorata (the sign behind me said so) but maybe he only spoke Quechua. I looked into his dull eyes and rolled off, belatedly saluting the blank mirror in his babyish eyes.
I was immediately impressed. This dirt road wasn't bad, for the first 100 meters. Then it got so much worse, I crept to a crawl to avoid shattering my teeth. Why would someone pave a road with big round river boulders? The adjoining fields told the story. The locals had cleared their tiny plots by throwing the boulders covering them into walls six feet high, and the excess went onto the road. The crystalline high peaks were transformed into what they might look like after a case of whiskey, making for triple and quadruple vision as I bounded along at six miles per hour, which meant it only took two hours to get up the hill where the pass let the road drop down into Sorata.
On the pass the boulders abruptly disappeared and I screeched to a halt, transfixed by the view below, right straight down below where the road looped back and forth on itself, little mystic villages stuck on sheer hillsides like they'd been pasted on by a sociopath at play. The first things that struck my eye were the white crosses lining the edge of the road as far as I could see. Back where I came from, I always considered crosses at the side of our relatively tame roads as proof that the fittest (or lucky) survive. In Bolivia it was clearly all luck, because an inch off the road there was air for 2000 feet (600 meters doesn't sound like so much), quite straight down. And the "road" was one narrow lane. I could see a truck careening around a corner right below me. My feet were tingling. I don't know what it means when your feet tingle, but I'm enormously familiar with one major cause for tingly feet and that's when I'm too close to the edge of a sheer vertical drop from 30 to 3000 or more feet, and this was in the latter category.
The truck downshifted and swung straight up at me. Up to then I'd been worried whether I had enough fuel to drive in and out of Sorata. I'd suddenly have settled for making it into Sorata, swerving for the nonexistent shoulder and feeling the van totter as the truck went rocketing by at six miles per hour.
I shakily pulled back onto the deeply rutted track and concentrated on appreciating the rather incredible view, a picture window of glaciated peaks swooping to verdant jungle with quaint Andean villages perched in between, quaint if you didn't get close enough to see the abject poverty. Phew, I finally swooshed out a too-long-held breath and fortunately glanced in my rear view mirror at the runaway bus behind me, merrily tooting its runaway horn. I skidded out of the ruts and came to rest with my left front wheel, the one closest to the precipice, safely lodged against a tilted white cross, and the bus went roaring by.
The rest of the trip wasn't exactly uneventful, but I eventually slithered down the hill to a few miles from Sorata, concentrating mightily on braking while deftly pressing the gas pedal lest the engine die and I lose both power steering and power brakes. I caught a flash of red sideboards ahead of me, a big, big truck that suddenly turned and was lost to view. That's what it looked like, but I'd had the merest glance because just then I was concentrating elsewhere. As I slid closer, it became apparent that the truck had not taken the road but had instead gone over the vertiginous edge that, in retrospect, out the corner of my eye and barely seen, seemed like slow motion. I slammed on my brakes, but couldn't stop as several dozen locals scampered across the road and over the side. As I literally skidded by, avoiding converging locals, I could see a jumble of shattered red boards, a gray clump of sand, and the truck cab on its side, a mere lucky fifty feet below. Five minutes later as I turned the last corner toward Sorata, I met an ambulance with its lights flaring and siren blaring. This corner is where a dilapidated bridge crosses a raging river. Through a caisson-sized hole rimmed by my right front tire, I could see the white froth of the river straight below me.
I arrived in Sorata a wreck. But as long as I'd actually made it, I took my time recuperating before daring the drive back out, flirting with a 70-kilometer bike ride trip (day one of three days) into the jungle far below Sorata to explore the seldom seen ruins of Iskanwaya (described by Lonely Planet Bolivia as "[not] exactly the 'Machu Picchu of Bolivia'"). Unfortunately Travis, proprietor of Sorata's foremost mountain biking emporium, and I couldn't rustle up enough fools to make the three-day trip. On day three, I gunned the van back out of Sorata, through unexpectedly appearing herds of cattle and sheep on the Sorata death road, meeting Toyotas galore (apparently the only vehicle allowed other than runaway trucks and buses), over wholly unnecessary speed bumps at the edges of small villages, up through fog so thick I couldn't see the sheer drops, and down the river-bouldered other side using brakes and accelerator through scattered boulders marking the road blocks thrown up the day before. Travis had told me about the roadblocks, a dual protest against the sale of Bolivian natural gas to the States and the failure of the Bolivian government to pave the road from Potosi to Tupiza.
"You're joking," I said. "The road from Tupiza to Potosi (which I'd driven twice) is just long and dusty. It's nowhere near as bad as the death road into Sorata."
"You're joking," said Travis.
What I really can't joke about is the real Death Road, a single lane dropping from a 15,500-foot pass above La Paz, to Coroico in the jungle at 3500 feet, a plunge of 12,000 feet in thirty-nine miles. The current fad is to do it on mountain bikes, so I did.
The Bolivian National Police in La Paz decided to start keeping statistics in January of 1998, to see if the Death Road to Coroico was as bad as everyone said it was, and it was. During the eight months through August 1998 they cataloged eighty deaths, one every three days, from run-overs (sixty-three with five injuries and eight deaths), collisions (sixty-four with thirty-six injuries and ten deaths), flips (one hundred thirty-nine with thirty-two injuries and twelve deaths), off the cliff (sixty-five with eighty-five injuries and eighteen deaths), fires (eight with fourteen injuries and twelve deaths), into the gutter (eighty with twenty injuries and thirteen deaths), overtaking (six with five injuries and five deaths), hitting a fixed object (five with four injuries and one death), landslide (two with one injury and no deaths) and passengers thrown out (three with five injuries and one death).
The government caught the drift of the Death Road and spent four years building a new, mostly two-lane, alternative, so trucks and buses wouldn't have to fight over a single lane. But for some reason trucks and most buses have been banned from the new road, so only regular vehicles and a few buses can use it, while all trucks and most buses continue up and down the single lane Death Road, competing with mountain bikes.
The Death Road is usually a sea of mud for the middle half and a dusty bowl for the last fourth. Fortunately, the first fourth has been paved into two wide lanes, perfect for out-of-control mountain bikers of the novice variety, such as me. Eighteen more experienced bikers led me down this very fast, paved track and it took me a dozen kilometers to loosen up sufficiently so I could let go and keep up. In no time I was whooshing along with the certifiably insane.
Then we hit the fog, which slowed me far more than they. I finally learned to ignore that impediment but not until moments before we left the pavement and hit the real Death Road that looped down through the jungle in slithery mud. In seconds we were a brown lot, nineteen of us covered with beige goop from head to toe. We slipped and sludged, dodging trucks that came unexpectedly around corners, swerving into tiny cliff-side turnouts about which our guides had repeatedly cautioned us. More than once they had shaken their fingers and admonished, "You must dismount from the inside of the bike, the side closest to the road, otherwise you can fall down a very long way, up to 2000 meters straight down." (In terms more familiar to some, that is 6600 feet, over a mile vertical). Another mountain biking company had lost a biker to a wrong side dismount less than a year previous, hence the lectures.
A splattery half hour later we finally dropped below the fog and scared ourselves half to death. For the first time, we could see what was off the side of the road—nothing. We gingerly halted, carefully getting off on the inside of our bikes and gawked over the edge. The edge was vines and shrubs scattered along a sheer drop that didn't seem to stop; by then we were three quarters of the way down, missing the fright of our lives, protected from reality by the cottony fog.
The view seemed to inspire some of the more devilish riders in the group. They jumped on their bikes and led us downward in a tornado rush with very little dust, two lickety-split stream crossings that we surged through like an SUV commercial, throwing water in curtains. Then we started our final descent, the last few rushing miles, and I thought, Why the heck am I going so incredibly fast? I've survived this far, so maybe I should slow down the tiniest bit for the last couple of miles, and I did.
The lady right in front of me didn't, and she suffered our only mishap when she became a statistic for hitting a fixed object, in this case a camouflaged speed bump 100 meters before our final destination in the little village toward which we were all rushing because it had cold beer. This fixed-object collision required two small stitches but the lady was hysterical, as if it would permanently render her a spinster with a hideous (if you could see it) facial scar. Poor med student she! Check out our little group at http://www.shutterfly.com/pro/GravityBolivia/September2003, which is the month we went. Groups went every day of the month so there are a lot of pictures to choose from, including a few of my own foolhardy visage on September 11, 2003. You can download a video of the Death Road ride at http://www.gravitybolivia.com/images/WMDRAVI.avi.