The Road of Death
I had one day to kill in La Paz. One day, the only break I’d have in the middle of another cross-continental, muscle-sapping, backside-numbing bus ride. I needed to be outside. I needed butt in gear, body in motion. I got off the bus, got in touch with a local agency, and early the next morning, I was geared up and out the door, ready to spend the day daring Bolivia’s “Carretera de la Muerte,” or “Road of Death” or “the most dangerous road in the world!” by bike.
I was joined by three other cyclists about my age–a Californian Peace Corp volunteer on vacation from Panama, and two Swedish college girls–and two guides who’d spent the better part of their young lives biking this ominous route. After a long, ascending van ride out of the city, we were dropped at our starting point with muddy dirt bikes and a quick “Before” photo shoot. From there, we climbed in altitude to 4700 meters, temperatures dropping and fog rising as we pushed higher and breathed heavier. It wasn’t until about an hour or more in that we reached the turning point where we would begin our 3500 meter descent, and we could see the Road of Death snaking along wicked cliffs and stunning cloud forest below us.
It was clear that this road was safer by bike than by, well, anything larger. Serious switchbacks, unpaved single track terrain, towering rock face on one side and steep cliffs and ravines on the other, an ubiquitous sensation of danger and no guard rails to be seen…they didn’t call it the Road of Death for nothing. At times, it seemed barely wide enough for one vehicle, let alone two, which is troubling since this is the main route to the city from the Yungas agricultural region below–that means many fat, teetering truckloads of farm goods heading North and South on a daily basis. I had serious doubts about the possibility of two cars passing each other until I saw a van and bus enter into a well-versed (but no less frightening) forward/reverse/forward/reverse dance with death when they came nose to nose on the thin little highway. (Apparently, the government has been working for years on an alternate route, which remains unfinished and could be seen through the haze below, mid-construction. It reminded me of Boston’s Big Dig–next year, always, it will be finished next year.)
Something about the road seemed familiar, and when a guide informed me that this was also the main south-bound bus route out of La Paz, he explained the deja vu: this was the very road we’d taken by bus on my way to Argentina, the night I thought I was going to die and was clutching the poor guy next to me as the bus lurched and creaked through the frigid, pitch dark night. Yeah, I’d been here before, and my fears of Death by Bolivian Bus were not ill-founded, after all. The roads are so narrow that bus passengers seated at the window can’t see an inch of road below, only deep, dark dropoff. That’s why priests can sometimes be seen mingling at the La Paz bus station–they can make a buck selling last rites to passengers before departure.
At various points during the bike ride, you could peer over the cliff and see the mangled remains of various passenger and cargo vehicles: old tires caught and dangling from branches, a glimpse of metal or glass tangled in bushes, a large passenger bus lying rusty and tired on it’s side at the bottom of the deep ravine. Intermittent bundles of cross-and-flowers mark the plummet points of travellers past. These were the only signs I saw that said “Warning! Danger!”, with the exception of a short, solitary man standing at one of the most dangerous corners. He stood holding a small sign, green on one side, red on the other, motioning us Green, clear, go. After losing his family to a fatal fall, this man has made it his personal mission to stand in silent protest, warning drivers to take caution, a small, dark angel with a handmade stop-and-go sign. “Oh yes,” my guide told me, “there is a high mortality rate here. Just last week, two bicyclists died, a Canadian woman and a German man.” Very reassuring. “But never with our agency, of course.” Of course.
Really, though, I felt much safer on bike than I had that night in the bus, and the ride, descending through fog past rocky cliff waterfalls, hazy green valleys, and lush ravines on a dusty single-track, was exhiliarating. Breathtaking. By the end of the day, I felt alive, I appreciated that, and I’d gotten exactly what I’d asked for: I was covered head-to-toe in mud, my hands and forearms throbbed from hours of braking and clutching handlebars on the descent, and my butt, of course, was killing me.
On Machu Picchu and Disney
It may seem strange that I’d write more about Bolivia’s “Road of Death” than Peru’s “Lost City of the Incas,” but, well, I’m going to. I arrived in Cusco to a warm welcome from old friends and host family, and a lot more tourists than I remembered. In February, the city was rainy-season busy: quiet and quaint feeling. Late April was another story. With Machu Picchu open for business, the place was buzzing. The Inca trail was booked solid through August, and so a trip by train was my only option. My friend Kasia and I took the train to Aguas Calientes, the small, touristy town at the base of Machu Picchu, and woke up at the crack of dawn to get to the top as early as possible.
Good thing we did. Not only was it incredible to sit and watch the sun rising over the ruins, but we had a chance to see it relatively free of visitors, quiet, shocking, quivering with ancient energy. We spent a couple of hours hiking up nearby Wachu Picchu, and by the time we hiked back, around 11 a.m., the place was crawling with crowds. Huge herds of tour groups. Rowdy teenagers from various parts of the world who laughed as they hopped “Please do not cross” ropes and reached across to fondle revered “Please to not touch” stones. People on cell phones! We hung at the end of a tour group trying to get some history, but it was too loud to hear much of anything. Wait, was I at Disneyworld? Or was this the site of the Incan empire, remains revered as holy, the shrine of an ancient people, a trove of untold mysteries, the energy center of the world, the origin of man? (This last one was my host father’s theory.)
We both felt the urge to get out of there. We’d seen the sacred beauty of the place in the still hours of morning. Neither of us wanted to stick around for the theme park version. That was Machu Picchu.
Miami International Airport, Revisited
After an amazing last week in Cusco with friends, and a last day of exploring in Lima, I was back. Landed. Through customs at the Miami International Airport, surrounded by English speakers–though not so much as I would be in Chicago–and Grande lattes. Literally within minutes of stepping off the plane I was confronted with a glowing green Starbucks logo, and I stood quite stunned in the middle of a rushing crowd of suits and java jackets, remembering, after three months of forgetting, that this was my world, the to-go cup coffee world. I stepped out of my South American dream and back into my North American one, and kept on going.
Tags: Biking, Bolivia, Machu Picchu, Peru, Travel