South America | Bolivia – The World’s Most Dangerous Road
Bolivia is a country of superlatives: the highest capital city in the world (La Paz is 3,260 metres above sea level); the highest city in the world (Potosi – 4,070m); the highest navigable lake in the world (at 3,820 metres above sea level, Lake Titicaca straddles both Peru and Bolivia); the world’s largest salt flats (12,000 sq. kilometres); the longest airport runway in the world (apparently the altitude and the thinness of the air means that planes require a longer time for take off); and the worst bus journeys in the world.
Bus travel in Bolivia is painfully slow, and very uncomfortable too. After a short journey of only 3 and a half hours in a so-called “tourist” bus, I managed to acquire a huge bruise the shape of Chile on my right knee. Even the ‘delightful’ Guatemalan chicken buses couldn’t match the extent of this particular bruise, which I thought strange really, as I would venture that the Bolivan tourist bus was in fact slightly more comfortable than the Guatemalan local bus, though infinitely less entertaining…
However, my adventures – or should I say, mis-adventures on Bolivian buses were only just beginning…
Getting to the Bolivian jungle necessitates travelling north from the capital – La Paz – either by bus, or by plane. For those who chose to travel by bus, the only way is to travel on what is officially the “World´s Most Dangerous Road”. Locals call it the ‘Death Road’.
In all, La Paz to Rurrenabaque is a journey of just over 200 kilometres by road – but it takes at least 20 hours – and that’s in the dry season! Fortunately, for all my complaints about the cold weather, I was travelling in the dry season, so at least I didn’t have rainy conditions to contend with as well as hair-raising views of vertical drops into total oblivion.
The first 70kms stretch from La Paz to Coroico where the road is only fit for one way traffic. There are passing places of a sort – the drivers defy usual convention in this part of the world and drive on the left side of the road. This is so that the driver travelling northbound (downhill) can see how far he can pull over to allow the other vehicle to pass without being forced off the road and plummetting to the depths below. And it allows the vehicle travelling arduous journey uphill to continue without frequent stops. At least that’s how it works in theory. Some don’t make it. That’s why it is the world’s most dangerous road, based on official accident statistics. Obviously my vehicle survived the journey, but its easy to see the fate of other less fortunate vehicles below.
Before we set out, the driver said a prayer and sprinkled holy water over the road. I checked my watch and it read 11:11. I took that as a positive sign.
The first sector of our journey (70 kms, remember) was negotiated during daylight and took 3 and a half hours – we made excellent time and I thought the driver drove very safely – despite the fact that he was pulled over by the police for not having the correct licence and registration (though he was allowed to continue after payment of a small bribe). When we arrived in Coroico I had to connect to a larger vehicle – also coming from La Paz – but this turned out to be more than 3 hours late. (I had taken a smaller vehicle – a minivan – as I had been told it was probably safer than the big bus, however, in order to make the connection, the minivan was scheduled to arrive 2 hours before the bus, so in the end I had to wait by the roadside for more than 5 hours until the big bus finally turned up). Fortunately I had some other weary travellers for company!
When the big bus finally appeared, some of the other travellers thought there had been a mistake. The bus was in a dreadful state. There were scraps of curtain dangling from a broken pole which ran the length of the bus. Most of the windows were broken, and those that were not, wouldn’t close. Foam was bursting from seats and the seatbacks either fell backwards into the laps of the people behind them, or didn’t recline at all. Everything was covered in a thick film of red dust, as were all the passengers by the end of the journey. I mean, I have seen buses in the same dreadful condition in other places – in Guatemala recently and India ten years ago – but not for an overnight journey. The trip was scheduled to take at least 16-hours, so I figured I better get comfortable. And if I couldn’t be comfortable, I better accept what was coming my way.
And indeed the worst was yet to come: for what I didn’t know when I got on the bus was that there was a further stretch of the Death Road to negotiate, but because the bus had arrived late, we would have to travel that final part of the road in the dark.
We progressed at a snail’s pace. Every few metres it was necessary to pull over and give way to oncoming (uphill) traffic. Two hours went by and we had travelled only a few kilometres. And on each occasion our stopping time seemed to be longer – the road was so narrow that often the passing vehicle had to make several attempts before getting past.
After 16 hours sitting next to an open window, my eyes streaming and throat scratched from dust clouds, I was convinced none other could match Bolivian roads – they were surely the filthiest in the world. It was only after 3 months in southern India that I had to throw out my clothes – but I had to do the same after less than a week in the Bolivian pampas! And not only were all my clothes unbelievably filthy, but they had a really horrible smell of the worst kind of dirt and dust imaginable (and not to mention swamp mud). They reeked!
Bolivia: a land of superlatives indeed :-o))