Our guide, Pedro, had a calm look as though he had seen this all before yet inside the makeshift minivan that served as our transport there was a feeling of nervous excitement.
Atop of our vehicle 12 bicycles adorned the roof like a beacon alerting the Bolivians of our destination. In this part of the world that could only be one place.
North Yungas Road, a 35 mile stretch of terrain historically connecting Lapaz to Coroico. Etched into the side of a mountain, the width of a single car, with sheer cliff edges and unforgiving drops where one wrong move could lead to…Death.
El Camino de la Muerte.
There is an odd law within many Latin American countries whereby if your home is unfinished it allows the owners certain tax breaks and as we drove through the mountainous city of Lapaz there was a constant flow of red brick buildings in various states of construction…or in disrepair depending on your point of view.
Although it was only 8am the constant smell of fried chicken was already saturating the air. Local women lined the road, selling their garments made from Alpaca or Llama skins. These women were all wearing the traditional wide hooped skirts that were common around Bolivia. We asked Pedro why the local fashion was so rotund, and he replied that the width of the skirts was so rounded due to the process that the skirts were crafted or, with a glint in his eye, maybe they are grand as to show the men how wide theirs hips are to serve as a mating call, anything is possible in Bolivia.
As we continued higher up the slopes of the Altiplano, the valley to our right became more prominent, highlighting how unique the city of Lapaz is. Nestled beneath the tri peaked, snow-capped Illimani mountain, it boasts the world’s tallest network of cable cars and is also the highest capital city in the world at 3640 meters. Whilst the Constitutional capital is Sucre, Lapaz is where the government holds court.
The cable cars gave way to vans and the odd bus with airbrushed murals depicting Jesus Christ or other religious figures. Whilst historically Bolivia was a Roman Catholic State, a 2009 Constitutional Referendum embraced the secular nature of the society. This is in part due to the many Bolivians that practice the dark arts of witchery and sorcery.
The female practitioners of this magic, known as Brujas, are concentrated in the witches’ market in central Lapaz, Mercado de las Brujas. Filled with all sorts of herbs and convictions for any ailment within it you can find mortar and pestle for combining the ingredients and prominent witches’ pots to brew your favourite concoction.
There is also, many and various baby llamas, dead and dried for your convenience to ensure your spells are just right. It is this witchery that gives our journey up to the Death Road an additional element. Are the Bolivian dark arts contributing to the infamous reputation that the Death Road has?
We stop off for snacks near Incachaca, next to the Cotapata National Park and as our internet reception wanes it is replaced by new electricity towers that dot the landscape, the morning sun shining off the metallic structures making them glow in the distance. Oblivious to us, it is here that we pick up a tail, a Bomberos 4×4, the Bolivian version of an emergency vehicle. Is this a safety mechanism or a bad omen of things to come?
Whilst our 9-person group, driver and guide fit into out van comfortably, this wasn’t a journey of isolation. A constant stream of old vans with numerous bicycles on its roof paraded to the first summit in orderly fashion. The Death Road has become a hotspot for adventure seekers and as we joined the procession line it was with a mix of anticipation but also odd comfort, knowing that if anything went wrong, there was a support system in place to help us out of a jam. And things do go wrong up here on Death Road.
Even though there are less deaths here than ever before, our guide told us of horror stories to make sure we were never completely in our comfort zone including the tale of the Death Road’s construction. Perhaps appropriately given its reputation, the Death Road was built during the Chaco War in 1930’s. Paraguayan prisoners were forced into labour and It came as no surprise to learn that none of the prisoners survived the construction. Death Road by name, Death Road by nature.
We started to see numerous memorials line the side of our route, symbolising those that had their final moments and contributed to the Death Road’s reputation. Did the Brujas have something to do with these incidents?
Continuing our summit, the Choqueyapu River emerged to our left and one of our group commented how excited they were to challenge their skills against Death Road.
Pedro commented mysteriously “you don’t challenge Death Road, Death Road challenges you and if it doesn’t get you, the Brujas just might”.
The buildings faded replaced by barren hills devoid of life except for strangely enough the odd gull or pigeon. We passed a road sign suggesting that Llamas were to be found ahead and yet oddly, none were seen. Had the Brujas got to them too?
First ascent completed. La Cumbre, altitude 4650 meters. Crosses dotted the hills but a Christos statue, arms spread, hovered over our landing. Was this a defence against the power of the Bolivian dark arts? We assembled our biking gear amongst broken liquor bottles that were spread throughout the barren flats of our starting point.
“Offerings to the mountain” Pedro said, and he filled a glass with an indiscriminate liquor and then oddly, raised the glass in a respectful toast to Pachamama or Mother Earth. He then emptied half its contents into the soil before downing the rest in a ritualistic gulp. We all proceeded to do the same. This was one occasion where we didn’t want to get off on the wrong foot.
Over the next 5 hours there was a mixture of majestic mountains, cramping fingers and corners that appear out of nowhere. Such is the rockiness of the road that a constant reverberation still echoed through one’s body even after the final descent had been achieved. It was during this time that I had an epiphany. Death road is not an adventure tour. It is a survival course.
The way back from Coroico to Lapaz is as windy and dangerous as the Death Road itself. It appears our driver thinks this is his time to shine as he cuts corners and takes the racing line through the tight narrow roads back.
“I wonder how easy it is to get your driver’s license here in Bolivia” our German thrill seeker ponders.
“You don’t apply for a license here, you just get them on the back of cereal boxes” a French friend jokes.
Half way to Lapaz and as our minivan crosses a bridge protecting us from the steep valley below, our driver suddenly stops in the middle of the bridge and jumps out. Our group all lean to the right window reaching for the best vantage point. The scene below shows a bus hanging half way down the cliff. By the side of the road, a blanket covers a body.
Our driver is out of the van on the bridge now. We all think that he is trying to ask if they need help at all. But no. He whips out his phone and takes a pic of the scene below. It seems the modern world has spread everywhere now.
Pedro looks back at us. “The Brujas of Bolivia have spared you all today, but as you can see…not everyone survives the Death Road.”