I am happy to report that I survived the first of many trips on El Camino de la Muerte (Death Road). I feel like the journey is worthy of its own blog post, given it was so epic unto itself.
El Camino de la Muerte connects La Paz with the region of Los Yungas, the Amazon rainforest where the coffee production zone is situated. Prior to renovation, it was once labelled the `World`s Most Dangerous Road`. Although it has since undergone construction, with a new road bypassing the most treacherous section, I can well understand why it remains renowned for its perilous nature. It was disconcerting to see several crosses adorned with flowers at intervals along the roadside. There are various google images and YouTube videos that frankly I did not need to see! After my curiosity got the better of me, I confess I was incited to add `write will` to my to-do list (somewhere between `tattoo` and `yoga`, though like those it got neglected in my pre-departure preparations).
Winding through the valley, El Camino clings to mountain gorges with hairpins turns, a steep drop on one side to the river below and rocky cliff face on the other. At its worst locations, the road is gravel and only wide enough for one vehicle, yet it is a fairly busy, two-way highway. Consequently, when the many cars, buses, lorries and trucks meet, negotiation ensues to determine who will have to reverse (often around corners) until there is a spot wide enough for vehicles to inch by.
Landslides are a frequent occurrence due to the rain and mud. The road is currently undergoing construction, and is being widened at various areas with plans for completion within the next couple of years.
Local road rules are such that on the most hazardous stretch, drivers suddenly switch from driving on the right side of the road (customary in the rest of Bolivia) to the left. This increases visibility to make passing safer, though one would think it would add to the confusion.
The distance from La Paz to Caranavi is a mere 170km, but our outgoing journey took a whopping 6hrs, and our return journey 7hrs. (If I`m not mistaken, isn`t that closer than Montreal to Ottawa?!).
We set off when the mountains were shrouded in thick fog, and that together with the huge clouds of dust rising from overtaking vehicles meant that visibility was poor. I shudder to think what happens during the heavy rains that are a daily occurrence during the peak of rainy season (December to February). The drivers must have nerves of steel.
Surprisingly, I was the only one of 5 concerned enough to wear a seatbelt (nonchalance or could it be that a quicker exit is desirable?!). Within 10 minutes of our journey, we had downed a shot of whiskey – discounting the driver, thankfully – and received a speeding ticket. As an aside, it is customary to spill a few drops of any alcoholic drink on the ground before taking a sip, as a t`inka (sacrificial offering) to Pachamama (Mother Earth).
At one point we found ourselves caught up in a huge traffic jam, involving trucks, buses and cars all fighting to pass. After much honking of horns, gesticulating and animated discussion, somehow negotiations were worked through and we were on our way.
The last two hours of the journey were in darkness. I marvelled that Celso, my colleage and our driver, could even make out the road and cliff edge, but he claims it`s easier to drive at night since there is the benefit of oncoming headlights. True enough, during daylight hours unfazed drivers navigate hairpin turns at great speeds with no indication of oncoming traffic, honking their horns madly at the last second.
During our return journey, we came to a grinding halt behind 15 or so vehicles. We got out to investigate and upon rounding the corner, were met by the unbelievable sight of the road disappearing into an enormous mound of rubble and earth. A crowd of agitated drivers and passengers stood spectating as bulldozers ploughed a path through the dirt. It was unclear whether this was the clean-up job after a landslide or simply construction. (Either way, it made me think that contrary to popular belief, Montreal construction may not be the worst in the world.) I heard that it would take half an hour to fashion a new road and though I was highly skeptical, sure enough that was the case.
With anticipated monthly visits to Los Yungas, I hope to develop nerves of steel to accompany my desired stomach of steel. We shall see.
More soon about the jungle visit itself! Stay tuned…