HIGHWAY TO HELL

LA PAZ | BOLIVIA

UYUNI | BOLIVIA

OCTOBER 2014

ARE YOU A FAN OF “TOP GEAR”? THE BBC MOTORING SHOW HOSTED BY A BARELY CONTAINED RACIST JEREMY CLARKSON AND HIS TWO UGLY SISTERS JAMES MAY AND RICHARD HAMMOND? DESPITE THE SCATHING (BUT HONEST) DESCRIPTION IT’S A FAVOURITE OF MINE. PROBABLY THE STANDOUT SCENE OF THE SERIES’ RUN FOR ME WAS WATCHING THE TRIO NAVIGATE BOLIVIA’S INFAMOUS “DEATH ROAD”, A STRETCH OF BARELY FLAT EARTH CUT INTO THE JUNGLE CLIFFS THAT DESCENDS FROM THE CAPITAL LA PAZ DOWN TO THE AMAZON BASIN. DEPENDING ON WHO YOU LISTEN TO, NOWADAYS IT’S EITHER A RELATIVELY SAFE TOURIST ATTRACTION OR A GENUINELY HOMICIDAL HIGHWAY STILL CLAIMING SCORES OF LIVES EVERY YEAR. SEEING AS I HAD A BIKING TRIP PLANNED THERE IT WAS TIME TO FIND OUT ONCE AND FOR ALL.

The night bus ride from Cusco to La Paz was draining. The bus itself, while looking like a wreck on the outside, was surprisingly cushy on the inside. Crossing the Andean plateau we passed by Lake Titicaca as we neared La Paz. The descent into the Bolivian capital was hair raising. La Paz is the world’s highest capital city, but the city centre itself lies at the bottom of a basin ringed by hills and slums. It is – according to Clarkson – “the worst capital city in the world”. I wouldn’t go that far, but at first glance it definitely lacks the charm of Cusco and many other places in South America. On the flip side it looks amazing at night time. As you step into the streets and gaze upwards it’s like being surrounded by a million blinking candles. Most of them are probably dumpster fires though.

The evening I arrived in the hostel I quickly got sucked into a drinking game with a bunch of German backpackers. They were heading to the “cocaine bar” that night and asked if I wanted to join. Apparently there is a not-so-secret bar here in La Paz that serves lines of cocaine alongside your beer. If they were trying to impress me they failed. I grew up in County Cavan. A bar that didn’t do that wasn’t worth going to.

As I said I had checked into the chilly capital to tackle the El Camino de los Meurtos (there’s my rubbish spanish again). I picked an outfit called Barracuda Biking and met up with the gang early the next morning. After a hearty breakfast we crammed into the van and began our climb into the highlands above the city where we would first make an offering to the goddess Pachamama and then saddle up. Our guide handed us a small bottle of rubbing alcohol for the toast. Seriously this stuff was 100%. Our offering would see us taking a sip, pouring some on our bike and finishing by pouring some on the ground. In this way we were asking the Andean deity to protect us, our transport, and honour the earth she provided us. The guides got a great kick out of watching the reactions. Our whole experience was being filmed (included in the cost) and the biggest laughs afterwards were watching everyone’s faces as the struggled to keep their eyes inside their sockets when swallowing the “offering”. Suitably tipsy we now decided it was an even better idea to ride some bicycles down the world’s most dangerous road. Hic.

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The goth of dangerous roads

After a few minutes of tutorials and reiterating the rules we set off. The initial stretch of road is steep but wide and paved. It’s possible to reach speeds of 80 kph here so it’s important to focus on the road and try not to be completely distracted by the mist shrouded peaks. Our camera guy headed off first to get himself into position to film us going through the “checkpoints”. It felt a little like Mario Kart but with less blue shells and banana skins.I think if Mario Kart was real life I’d probably be Luigi. Normal enough but continually in the shadows and constantly wearing green dungarees.

Eventually we came to the end of the good roads. The time had come to pile back into the Mystery machine and brave the Death Road itself. No one appreciated the guide’s decision to blast “Highway to Hell” as we twisted and turned our way to the starting point. Except me. If I’m gonna die I’m gonna got out rocking.

 

These days the North Yungas Road has been bypassed by an actual highway. It no longer functions as the only route from La Paz down to the town of Coroico almost 12,000 feet below. Despite the road being nothing more than a tourist attraction these days it still presents great danger if you’re not careful. At times it is less than 10 feet across and boasts sheer drops of over 2,000 feet. Rain and waterfalls can turn hairpin corners into a slip’n’slide. In short you do NOT wanna take this lightly. It’s that element of danger that draws thrill seekers from all over the world to conquer the planet’s “Most Dangerous Road”. But hey I used to cycle into town so I’m sure I’ll be fine.

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It’s easy. So long as you don’t look down. Or anywhere.

I gotta admit, this was a hell of a lot of fun. Apart from a small uphill section it’s all down hill mountain biking with spectacular views. We paused at certain sections for water and photos while being reminded constantly “it’s not a race!” – something which many paid no heed to. The thrill of the ride was punctuated by sober moments, passing by monuments and crosses to the hundreds that have lost their lives here over the years. At many sections our guide showed us wreckage below on the slopes, one included the remains of a bus. It was harrowing to think of the terror and panic the people must have felt as they plummeted to their deaths. The Road of Fate had earned it’s name before thankfully being consigned to history.

After a few hours, and some small stream crossings later we pulled into the small village at it’s base for something to eat. As we chowed down we watched our little production play out on the big screen. It was a great day all round. Everything, even the food, is provided and the experience of braving the world’s most dangerous road and living to tell the tale is a real confidence booster. Nowadays¬† every time people remind me to slow down on the motorway I’m like “bitch please”. The journey back up to La Paz on the new highway is at times just as hair raising as the Death Road itself. We passed by so many truck accidents. They have dug huge drainage channels on the inside passage of the road which seem to be screwing people over who are understandably hugging the inside lane.

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“Top Gear Corner”this is where Jeremy Clarkson had to inch by another car in an event which clearly wasn’t staged or scripted in any way

A lot of people have since asked me if the Death Road is safe to bike on. It’s a huge draw now in La Paz so it’s obviously pretty safe. Aside from the biker’s support vans we met just one single car the whole time. If you follow the rules and bike safely you’ll have no problems. The issues arise when people speed and show off. This was evidenced by the guy who – earlier in the trip – was doing wheelies and handstands, hitting the solitary car on a bend and breaking his knee cap. Apparently 18 cyclists have died here since 1998 and it is obviously claiming more injuries everyday. But like any other mountain bike trail (and I use the word trail rather than road) if you bike responsibly there is very little to worry about.

There isn’t much to recommend about La Paz to be honest. The Witches Market is pretty cool though. I took a walk through it one evening. As the name suggests this was traditionally where you could stock up on all those christmas gift ideas for that special practitioner of black magic in your life. Everything is on sale here from herbs and ointments to dried llama fetuses. Andean witchcraft¬† relied on the idea of sacrifice. If you wanted to cast a love spell for example you would need to sacrifice something important to you. Here in Bolivia that was usually livestock such as llamas and vicuna, and the younger the better.

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That time your amazon cart was full of dead baby animals

Another surprisingly comfortable night bus took me south towards the small desert town of Uyuni. In the early morning light the landscape reminded me a lot of Arizona. Uyuni is famous for containing the world’s largest salt flats. The Salar de Uyuni was formed by the drying of an enormous prehistoric lake and covers an over of over 10,500 square kilometers. So large and flat is it that it’s used to calibrate the altimeter of satellites. Amazingly it also contains 70% of the worlds lithium. Think of all the laptops, iPads and mobile phones that owe their existence to this place.

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Earth’s largest mirror is working well

Right off the bus I was hounded for tours onto the flats. They all seemed pretty much the same so it didn’t take long to choose one. I arrived at the tour office late the next morning and missed my departure. Luckily the driver returned to pick me up and brought me to the train cemetery to meet the rest of the group. Here on the edge of the salt pan lies a collection of hulking rusted trains and carriages forgotten after the implosion of the mining industry here in the 40’s. The antique trains were manufactured by the British to transport minerals to the Pacific coast ports, now they lie scattered and burning to a dark red rust in the Altiplano sun.

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A sad end for Thomas and friends

It had rained a few days previous to my visit to the salt pans and as a consequence some parts had been turned into the world’s largest mirror. A thin film of liquid remains above the hardened salt providing a reflective surface which has gotta be every photographers dream. Driving on the flats is a surreal experience, one for which a good pair of sun glasses is mandatory. The sun has dried the salt into blinding hexagonal panels, almost like natures bathroom tiles.

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Going for a stroll

We stopped for lunch in a small stone house on the other side of the pan, a delicious mixture of curried potatoes and beef. Afterwards we drove to the centre to the bizarre Incahuasi Island. Here among hundreds of giant cacti is a path to the summit providing an unrivaled aerial view of the white expanse below. The cactus here are really something else, easily over thirty feet high in places. They line the trails that criss-cross the island, like a sea of palm trees on a desert island in the middle of the ocean. There is even a little house with a cactus growing into the walls. Obviously load-bearing cacti are a big part of Bolivian architecture.

boliviahouse
Shoddy workmanship or stroke of genuis?

From the top you are afforded a 360 degree view of the salt flat, an amazing sight, especially when you can spy snow capped volcanoes along it’s edge. It’s easy to forget that the salt flats here are part of the South American Altiplano and as such are situated at just under 12,000 feet above sea level. It’s hard to believe you could get altitude sickness on such a flat surface.

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A teeny tiny jeep making it’s way across the flats towards Incahuasi Island

Bolivia initially didn’t seem to get as much attention as other high flying south american destinations such as Brazil or Argentina but it had provided some amazing experiences. As a side note – if there are any movie or history buffs reading this then you’ll probably be interested to know that a few hours east of Uyuni lies the town of Tupiza, best known for the last stand of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. They are buried in a modest grave in the small overgrown cemetery here. Unless you believe the conspiracy theories that they faked their own deaths and fled elsewhere. The movie kinda ended on a cliffhanger and does little to clear that up.

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Feeling salty? Bolivia is the place for you!

From Bolivia I’d be crossing into northern Chile following the same route taken by Top Gear in the South America Special. From the Bolivian border I’d be following Ruta 11 through Lauca National Park towards Arica. It seemed easy enough, so I prepared for a long by very enjoyable and scenic ride.

Never fall asleep on a South American bus.

In my wisdom I decided the best way to kick off this journey was to hop on the night train leaving Uyuni at 2 am to arrive in Oruro at around 10 am. That went well enough. In fact I was enjoying the film they were showing onboard so much we pulled into the train station just before the climax. I hate when that happens. I walked to the bus station to book my ticket onward to Arica. Oruro to Arica. Simple enough. I’d be crossing the border into Chile but by all accounts it was pretty straight forward.

boliviauyuni
This is probably the only way my car would ever look cool.

After a few hours the bus dumps me at the side of the road in a tiny dusty village. My spanglish understand that another bus will soon be coming by heading in my direction. After a confusing few minutes asking for directions to the bus stop from equally confused locals I sat down to wait.

And wait.

And wait.

Meanwhile several buses come and go but all of them shake their head when I show my ticket. Eventually after around two and a half hours in the hot sun my bus finally arrives and it would be plain sailing from here.

Or so I thought

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At least the scenery wasn’t bad

Next time: It was not plain sailing.

 

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