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Hitching Bolivia’s ‘Road to Death’

Hitch hiking through a South-American country may not be the brightest idea, but to do it in one with some of the most dangerous roads in the world is surely the wildest dream of all. But this is exactly what I did this summer, nowhere else than in Bolivia from Yolosa to Rurrenabaque taking  a ride on the back of freight trucks.

The strip between Yolosa and Yucomo is one of the most dangerous roads in the world. Part of it is called the “Road to Death” and every word of it is true. The road no wider than 3,2 meters, un-paved and on average 100 people die on it each year. The worst accident occurred in 1983 when a truck slipped into the steepest roadside gorge killing 100 people at once.

My companion was not entirely impressed by my idea of saving money but he had to put up with it as I invited him. We had no plans and no maps, we did not even know the names of the places we were about to visit, we just wanted to hit the road and go with the flow.

We left La Paz in the afternoon one sunny day. The ticket cost 10 bolivianos each, about a quid to Yolosa, 4 hours from La Paz. We waited till the last minute to buy the tickets because one gets a better deal just minutes before the bus leaves as they want to fill the remaining places with passengers.  The bus did not look very promising, rather like a vehicle destined for scrap but we hoped for the best and prayed to God not to let the driver fall asleep behind the wheel as we descended over 3000 meters from the capital to the Bolivian rainforest.

After about an hour our hearts started to beat slower and the altitude sickness feeling had passed too, which was the first sign of our descend to the valley of death. On the side of the road crosses left by family members were proof of the bad luck of other drivers, and believe me there have been many unlucky ones.

As the bus carried on flying us down to the valley the view was becoming ever more exotic. Lush forests carpeted the hillsides and a myriad of waterfalls showered down under the road as we crossed over bridges and drove through countless tunnels. From the arid and oxygen poor heights of La Paz we arrived to the abundance of water and fresh air.

We got off the bus just before sunset and made our way on foot to the next hotel which was about 2 hours walk away. The road was very quiet after sunset as no-one dares to drive on it at night because there are no signs and railings indicating the edge of the road: it is easy to fall. We reached the hotel just after the restaurant closed so we had to make do with the bread we brought with us and put ourselves away for next day’s adventure.

The following morning we decided to walk a couple of hours to immerse ourselves in the beauty of the countryside and to listen to the rarest birds’ singing. The only time I ever heard voices like that was when I used my computer’s operating software to make funny noises whenever I clicked on something. Although the scenery was wonderful and the birds were singing beautifully, each time a truck passed us the dust almost made us suffocate.

When we could not cope with the dust and carrying our heavy bags any more I waved off the first truck coming and the driver was kind enough to stop for us. First time lucky we were. I asked if he would take us, and he asked where to, to which I said “Till you go”. He said he would takes us to a place but as I did not understand the name of it we just got on the back of the truck without knowing where we were actually going. Only hours later did we find out from the other indigenous travellers who shared the back with us that we were going to Caranavi.

It was a four hour ride on the back of the truck, the first time for my Chilean friend, the second for me. I did something barely comparable once before in Romania, although that was nothing in likeness to what we were doing in Bolivia. The road was horrendous and it felt like the truck would shake the soul out of us as we jumped every time we drove into a pothole or sprung on a rock, but we loved every minute of our adventure never before experienced by either of us.

Our ride arrived to Caranavi at noon, just on time for lunch. The other travellers warned us to take care of ourselves in this town because there is a lot of crime and robbery so I hid my valuables to a safe place in my rucksack. On the contrary to our fears, there was no danger waiting for us, and everybody seemed helpful and friendly. They sold us bread at the local rate and we had lunch in one of the cheap restaurants with the locals. I am confident to say that they did not overcharge us because we sat at the same table with other locals and they were charged the same as us, so not only did they not rob our valuables but we were also dealt fairly in all of the establishments.

After lunch we made our way to the end of town and asked truckers to take us but none of them wanted to as they were travelling with family members. So we had to walk second time that day. For hours only taxis passed us and we were giving up hope that we would get anywhere close to a town that day. Just when we started to contemplate taking the expensive option and get into a taxi we spotted a police checkpoint where some truckers waited and one of them offered to take us to the next town. It almost proved to be a deadly ride for us.

It was raining all afternoon and not only our clothes got soaking wet but the road underneath the truck which meant the mud made it very slippery and dangerous to drive on. It did not seem to bother the driver who was driving a good 30-40 miles an hour in the deadliest hairpin turns.

The fruit of his carelessness was that when a bus came unnoticed from the other direction he had to pull off to the side of the rode quickly and lost control, slipped and only our luck saved our lives. A big rock stopped the wheel slipping any further and we could quickly get off the back where we travelled with a load of bricks.

We spent the next two hours putting rocks in front of the wheels to stop the truck slipping any further and begged other drivers to stop and pull us out. None of them wanted to help their fellow trucker and so we began to worry that the heavier rain would wash the truck into the ravine. But then we got lucky because just before darkness fell one big lorry stopped and pulled our vehicle to safety so we could carry on to the border crossing of two counties.

There the driver told us it may be better for us if we get in a bus for the night because it can get pretty cold during the late hours.  We took his advice and after having had dinner with him we parted and waited for a bus. The next bus came an hour later and following some haggling he promised to take us to Rurrenabaque, a jungle “resort” for foreigners interested in the Wadidi National Park. Our hitch-hiking challenge ended in style.

Much more by this author on his very excellent website

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