Known locally as the Road of Death, the North Yungas road connects the Bolivian capital with the Yungas region in the north east of the country. Back in the year 2000, the new highway hadn’t been built so this treacherous route was are only choice for our bus from Coroico to La Paz.
The road consists of little more than a narrow 56km track winding its way through the Andes. From Coroico at 1,200 meters, there is an almost continuous ascent up through the steep sided mountains until reaching ‘La Cumbre’ pass’ at 4,650 meters. There are no guard rails to protect drivers from the sheer cliffs – up to 600 meters in places – and passing places are few and far between. It is the one place in Bolivia where drivers (who would otherwise drive on the right) drive on the left, so they can more easily see how close their outside tyres are to the cliff edge – making passing safer. Added to the risk, streams from further up the mountains fall directly over the road and lead to frequent landslides.
For all of the above reasons, the old road used to claim the lives of 200-300 people each year which is how it became known as ‘la carretera de la muerte‘. At many points along the roadside, various crosses, shrines and flowers would mark the point at which some pour soul or vehicle fell.
But I’ll start in the pretty little town of Coroico where we were spending a few days recuperating after a horrendous bus journey from Rurrenebaque recounted separately. We had arrived the previous day and found lodging at the Hotel Esmerelda.
7th February 2000: Coroico, Bolivia (day 201 overall)
I’d intended to get up early and go for a walk but my shatteredness from the bus ride meant I didn’t awake until 10am. Finally after brekkie, we got started in planning for a nearby explore. Fellow guest Julian (who we’d previously become friendly with in Rurre and bumped into again here) asked if he could join us – the more the merrier.
The walk we’d chosen took us on a steep climb up the hill from the village to the Calvario Church behind the hotel, up along a wide ridge and then into a thick forest. There was not a lot of wildlife except for pesky biting flies but the views across the nearby valleys were great.
By now, the sun was high and we stripped off to our waists. Unfortunately, this meant we all ended up burnt since we didn’t think of using any sun-cream! We had read that the forest was supposed to be the site of many witch craft ceremonies but we saw little evidence of this. After about 3 hours of walking (including several rest stops) we reached the summit of the hill. We were rewarded with a beautiful 360 degree view of the surrounding area. We headed home and by the time we got back, the sun had turned to rain and a chill wind had been stirred up. It was back to videos and chess to pass the time.
Julian had tried to take a bus that was due to leave that afternoon to La Paz but it was cancelled due to landslides on the road. So in the evening, he rejoined us and we met up with some American girls and a couple of Norwegian blokes for dinner nearby in a small Mexican style cafe. The waiter was useless getting most of our orders wrong or returning an hour later to see they had run out of such and such. He kept bringing stuff that no one ordered but luckily one of the girls was half Chilean and spoke fluent Spanish so we muddled through but still received meals that we didn’t order and were pretty tasteless anyway. I ended up with a tiny enchilada which he then tried to charge me the same price as for a similar dish that someone else had which was twice as big. After yet another argument, I agreed on paying half his suggested price. Afterwards, we all ended up in a dance bar and salsa’d / meringue’d / bopped until the small hours with the help of a few beers.
8th February 2000: Coroico, Bolivia (day 202 overall)
It was raining and it continued to rain virtually all day. Julian’s bus yesterday had been cancelled but they were running again today so he headed off to try again. For us, it was a lazy day. We thought about embarking on another nearby walk to see some waterfalls but one of the American girls said it wasn’t that good and nothing compared to the ridge walk we did yesterday. The thought of walking in the pouring rain didn’t help matters so instead, we passed the day with a combination of games, videos and discussions.
One such discussion involved a hypothetical, incredibly long and light weight pole that could reach the Moon from the Earth through which instantaneous signals be passed – or could they? The theory being that by pushing one end of the pole would ‘instantaneously’ move the other end. This kind of nonsense kept us debating for a long time!
We ate a tasty yet small meal at our own hotel before continuing with a couple of videos. Irinia and I managed to keep each other awake with our thoughts surrounding reality / imagination / ideas / beliefs until 4am.
9th February 2000: Coroico, Bolivia (day 203 overall)
Our late-night discussions meant that I slept through the alarm (if it did go off). I didn’t awake until 9:40 which gave us less than an hour to pack before we had to check out of the hotel and we didn’t want to forgo our breakfast or getting showered!
It seemed like nearly all the guests at the hotel were checking out and so a few of us headed off to buy bus tickets – not wanting them to run out of seats – while the others checked out. Tickets for the 3:30pm bus were obtained and we headed back to hotel to pass the time by watching another video (‘As Good as It Gets’) along with a quick lunch. However, our hotel manager informed us that no buses from La Paz had actually arrived that day which indicated the road was blocked again. A few of the guests and ourselves headed back into town to verify but sure enough, the bus station said no bus would be leaving today. The woman at the bus company spoke Spanish with the American girl who explained that we could book a free ticket on the bus tomorrow which – seemingly having no other choice – we did.
We needed more money since we would be staying another night so went off to find a money changer. On our return to the hotel we headed past the bus station again. There was a bus outside – filling with passengers and about to leave for La Paz! But when we asked about getting onboard ourselves (since we were all packed and ready to go) – the bus company said our tickets were no longer valid since they were for tomorrow’s bus!! We didn’t understand if it was all a ridiculous lie to sell more tickets but whatever the reason – it was incredibly frustrating.
We chatted to a couple of the passengers who said that the company told them they weren’t guaranteed to make to La Paz since they would have to stop at the landslide further up the road and make their away across on foot to continue via another bus. The bus left and we didn’t meet see any of the passengers again in Coroico so I must assume it did manage to make it or fell off the cliff. The road to La Paz is considered the most dangerous in the world with a vehicle falling off one of the steep cliffs every two weeks on average. Irinia and Jono spent some time that night sending an email home as if it would be their last. Mark and I decided to be a little more optimistic!
We booked back into the hotel and the manager assured me several times that it was only 25Bs a night – 10Bs cheaper than the previous night. After today’s cock-up with the bus, I’ll believe it when I see it. A few videos and a very tasty meal later – we fell asleep around 10pm.
10th February 2000: Coroico to La Paz, Bolivia (day 204 overall)
Today the bus was due to leave on schedule so after a few more games in the morning, we finally set off along the most dangerous road in the world. Our bus was a small minibus filled with gringos all heading to La Paz. We reached Yalosa but then had to wait until the 5pm turnaround when the one way road from La Paz to Yalosa became a one-way road from Yalosa to La Paz. Why the buses left so early to reach Yalosa and then stop for a few hours was beyond me but finally it was time to set off again.
A little further on, we came to the site of a large recent landslide which was in the process of being cleared. People and vehicles were rushing across since another landslide was expected very soon. Our minibus just hooted its way through since we also didn’t want to get caught out. Our driver told us that a bus had fallen off the same cliffs this morning killing everyone inside. The cliff was already 200 meters high and increasing as we drove up higher up the mountain sides.
At many points, one could lean out of the window and watch a dropped stone fall virtually to the valley floor far below without hitting anything on the way down. In other places, the road was carved like a horizontal groove into the side of the cliff. Above us, the overhang of the rock reached out to the other side of the road. During these stretches, the occasional water fall from above would pour water down the mountain without the bus getting wet since we were under the overhang.
Carved into the cliffs were many crosses and shrines dedicated to those who had died near each spot. In some places, many crosses were grouped together where perhaps several had died in a single vehicle. In one place, a large shrine was dedicated to six Israelis and two Dutch tourists whose bus had plunged over the edge. We rode on in an eerie quietness in the bus until we finally saw the bright lights of La Paz.
Back in La Paz, the Hotel Austria (where we had stayed a month back) was full but we found a cheaper room in the Hotel Torino just a block away. We were hungry once again and so met up with the American girls at Eli’s pizza restaurant. Jono had been feeling unwell for a couple of days and so couldn’t join us for our mega-pizza! Afterwards, we took a long walk down to Mango’s Bar where we drank a few beers and stayed until midnight before crashing out back in the hotel.