Wednesday, July 14, 2004

The Death Road

So, I, today 13 July 2004, survived the Death Road. The "world's most dangerous road" is not just a tourist moniker for the route which drops from La Cumbre, above La Paz at an icy 4900m, to Coroico, in the lush subtropical valley 3000m below. It's been officially applied by the U.S. Department of Transportation in virtue of this road having the highest average casualties per annum anywhere in the known world.

Most people are well aware that this is due more to the approach of drunk and/or crazy Bolivian truck and bus drivers - periodically sending a busload of people off the precipitous edge - than to the intrinsically terrifying nature of the road. Nevertheless, it has great notoriety, and tourists flock to take tours down the road on mountain bikes and boast afterwards of their brush with oblivion. Of course, it's relatively safe for cyclists and their stats are a lot better - just six tourists have plunged to their deaths in the last five years. Still enough to put a shiver down your spine, though. I was nervous when I woke up this morning; I didn´t actually expect to die, but I did expect some adrenaline - a life afirming experience, in fact, from a glimpse into the abyss. I'd promised my friends in Arequipa I'd be careful, and avoided telling you about it, Mum and Dad, to avoid the paroxysms of worry.

In the end? Well, it was more endorphins than adrenaline, more sport than daredevil adventure. We covered the 64 km from La Cumbre to Coroico in about 2 1/2 hours, hitting speeds of 60-70 km/h on the first stage, a beautiful stretch of ashphalt lined with fresh snow, allowing us the chance to appreciate the gorgeous rock-and-ice towers plunging into deep canyons. The next two bits along the dirt road to Corocio - a narrow 10km stretch known as the core "Camino de Muerte", followed by a wider but still precipitous 32 km - involved some rough mountain biking, and sore hands from gripping the brakes, but one hardly felt the breath of the grim reaper. I suppose there were some sheer drops - keeping your eyes on the road you didn't really see them - but the road was wide enough for a cyclist to pick their spot, and with four guides and two 4WDs all hooked up with radios, there was ample warning of any oncoming uphill or downhill traffic, so we could easily stop and get out of the way. The only time I was truly scared was during the extended safety briefing prior to the start of the 10 km "real death road" stretch - if anything was going to make me fall off my bike it was the nerves engendered by the way that bit was talked up...

I'd promised myself that I'd be conservative; I wanted to make it back to Arequipa; if there was going to be a fast group and a slow group I was going in the slow group. Of course, that's not how it turned out - it turned into a bit of a race, and I had to be in the fastest of the three groups. The others in the tour were a typical cross-section of South American tourists - three Dutch girls, two Israeli guys, two Swiss girls, a Quebecois couple, an English girl, a Norwegian guy, an English guy and an Irish girl. On the ashphalt stretch from La Cumbre, I was the first rider behind the lead guide; on the 8km uphill ashphalt/gravel bit which followed, only the Norwegian guy finished ahead of me. As we hit the dirt downhill parts the three 6-ft Dutch girls took off at breakneck speed, along with the Quebecois guy; I and the Norwegian guy lost them on the wildest bits. It wasn't until three quarters of the way down that I got the confidence to really lean into the left-hand turns (towards the cliff side). In the end we all finished together, the second group was about a minute behind, and the third five minutes behind them.

As we dropped in altitude the vegetation got thicker and lusher, the sun got stronger, and about two-thirds of the way down we could feel warm, humid air rushing up from the valley floor. Apart from the sheer enjoyment of the ride, the real highlight was the incredible vistas - jagged snowy mountaintops still visible, canyon walls plunging into the rich jungly valley. We went through a couple of waterfalls and, lower down, a couple of streams; by the time we were finished we were filthy with dust and mud. In Coproico we adjourned to the Hotel Esmeralda for a buffet lunch and fnatastic hot showers, appreciating the stunning views back across the valley and mountains framed by tropical flowers in the hotel patio.

Riding back up in the tour company's 4WDs with our "I survived the death road" t-shirts, I couldn't help feeling we were frauds. That's not to say that the road is toothless - quite the opposite. In a truck or bus, it's truly a nightmare. The truly crazy-headed angelic heroes are the drivers of the heavy vehicles which frequent the route - and the passengers packed into them. On the way down we stopped for an upcoming truck and saw it come head-to-head with a minivan which had just passed us. On the Death Road, the rules are the opposite of everywhere else on the continent - traffic must keep to the left, meaning that uphill vehicles get to hug the mountainside, while downhill traffic has to pass by flirting with the precipitous cliff face. On this occasion the two vehicles met a really narrow bit, and the minivan had to reverse quite some way before giving a chance for the truck to pass - as it did so, we could see the left wheels of the van clinging to the very edge of the fragile shoulder.

There are people who do this every day. You see the mandarins being sold by the old indigenous woman on the street in La Paz at the bargain rate of 5 for 1 Boliviano (20c)? Most probably they've been brought up from the warm valley round Coroico by one of the heavily-laden lorries that chug up the winding route. Or perhaps the woman herself carried them up in one of the ancient and jam-packed passenger vehicles making the daily trip.

Unlike a fighter pilot or someone who taps burning oil wells, though, these drivers don't receive rewards commensurate with their risks. What does a minivan driver on the Death Road get paid? Probably the same pittance that Bolivian bus drivers get everywhere. The only extra reward for him and his passengers is an existential one, from frequently and calmly facing oblivion. How much that is worth when them and their children depend on this livelihood, I don't know. It's not quite The Wages of Fear.

For a tourist, it's the perfect product - we get the glory and the thrill of association with danger, without the reality. But that's on the backs of the hundred or thousands of local people who have tragically plunged to their deaths. When you look at it that way, it's perhaps a little ghoulish...

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