The Real Camino de la Muerte

By: Leigh Taveroff

With the sun in your eyes, your feet firmly on the pedals, and your index finger slightly drawing on the brakes, you take one quick breath and let it slowly release through your lips. You look around for support from fellow travellers and tell yourself not to look too far over the edge. You assure yourself this is safe – they wouldn’t let you do this if it wasn’t – right? Although, you did sign that consent form, and there was that stern safety demo…but there’s no turning back now.

You start pedaling and slowly release the brakes. All of a sudden you’re hurtling down and looping around. The wind is in your hair and the lush, green foliage and rolling hills of the Amazon rainforest are whipping past you in a blur. You feel every small stone and fragment beneath you as your knuckles begin to take on a strange, off-white hue.

Adventure-seeking travelers from all over the globe descend on La Paz, Bolivia during high season to experience the aptly named ‘Camino de la Muerte’ or ‘Death Road’, a winding stretch of rocky terrain that begins at almost 4,900 metres above sea level. Cycling this stretch has become common practice for thrill-seeking tourists travelling through South America, with roughly 300 deaths per year not seeming to put a dent in visitation (making it even more enticing, perhaps?).

The Real Camino de la Muerte

If breathtaking views, enormous excitement and a little bit (a lot) of danger are your thing, then Death Road, or its true name – North Yungas Road – is certainly up your alley. For my travel buddy Janelle and me, the real adventure didn’t begin until two weeks later. Unbeknownst to us, we were about to embark on a journey that would flip our notion of adventure travel and ‘living local’ on its head, while almost doing the same to ourselves, literally.

The Real Camino de la Muerte

We’d had a little too much fun in La Paz, lodging at a quintessential South American party-hostel, for a solid 15 days straight. It was time to detoxify and enjoy the vast, ever-changing landscapes and natural beauty that is Bolivia. A trip into the depths of the Amazon was just the ticket. After a quick chat with a tour guide on the benefits of the jungle (hiking, solitude) vs. the wetlands (swimming with freshwater pink dolphins and lazy boat rides down the river) we were sold. We decided to visit the tropical wetlands located on the outskirts of the Bolivian Amazon, known as the Pampas.

There was one other transport option – a bumpy, windy, busy 20-hour bus journey along the cliff edge.

It was highly recommended that we arrive in Rurrenabaque, a small town known as the gateway into the Amazon, by 20-seater mini-plane. There was one other transport option – a bumpy, windy, busy 20-hour bus journey along the cliff edge. “100 US dollars for the plane?!” I gasped, “no way!” We’d been travelling for about three months, and funds were running low – plus, we hadn’t embarked on this journey to take ‘the tourist route’. We’re not tourists, we convinced ourselves, we’re travellers! Two days later, and against all warning, we found ourselves weaving through a sea of local buses, searching for one that read ‘Rurre’.

Soon after, we found our bus, paid for our ticket – the equivalent of $9 USD, hello savings – and were told by the driver we’d set off in 20 minutes. Two hours later (‘Bolivian time’, AKA no care in the world) our rusty, old bus was brimming with human-sized bags of beans, rice and maize. To say the bus was full could be the understatement of the century. Four Andean men clung onto the door frame, bodies half outside the bus, and indigenous women wearing full cholitas paceñas, traditional garb complete with multi-layered skirts, shawls and bowler hats and holding on to an endless array of screaming babies, we were ready to go.

Janelle wedged herself in at the back of the bus, beside a family of seven, while I took a seat on the floor in front of them. Children began playing with my hair and climbing over my legs, with one even perching on my lap, as parents looked on unwaveringly. A distinct odour began filling my nostrils, but I chalked it up to the mini chicken coop crammed beneath the seat in front of me. With a dramatic groan, the bus began chugging along. Only 20 hours to go.

With the city shrinking behind us, we turned a few corners and found ourselves in the middle of the rainforest, once again. This was why we had taken the bus – to experience the awe-inspiring landscapes of the Bolivian countryside, just like locals. Right before I could say, “Look, Janelle!” our top-heavy bus – did I mention there were 150 bags of beans tied to the top? – tipped sharply to the left. Janelle slid into the woman beside her, as the little boy on my lap began to wail.

The Real Camino de la Muerte

I stood up and realized our bus had gotten stuck in a deep trench created by another vehicle that came before us. The rainy season had just passed, after all. A few women began quietly praying while the men hollered something in Aymara or Quechua or maybe Spanish. Janelle and I looked on as they jumped on top of fellow passengers on the right-hand side of the bus, pushing against the windows. The bus quickly lowered down, all wheels firmly embedded in the damp earth beneath us.

“What the f***!” Janelle yelped.

Three women with children in tow, got off the bus and we drove on, leaving them in the middle of nowhere. With a seat now available, I peered out the window and realized we were scarily close to the edge of what must have been a 350-metre drop.

We continued driving along the narrow, unpaved, dirt road complete with several hairpin turns, passing fallen boulders and inching ever-so-close to the edge of the cliff, until we approached another bus. We squeezed past slowly, and I noticed that the passing bus was missing both rear-view mirrors. It had done this dance before.

As we inched along the edge of the cliff, I was sure the left-hand wheels were partially floating on air, about to go over any minute.

La Paz sits at almost 4000-metres above sea level, with Rurrenabaque a minuscule 200-metres above sea level, so I knew we had a long journey downhill. Only 18.5 hours to go.

We carried on this way for hours, inching past passing vehicles, then making up for lost time by flying blindly around turns along the cliff edge. Janelle and I stared out the window, at times close to tears. Each time we approached another vehicle, we were sure we’d meet our demise, by smashing into the side of the mountain, or tipping over the edge of the cliff. We approached another bus, this time veering left.

“NO!” Janelle screamed, “WHY ARE WE DRIVING ON THIS SIDE?!”

As we inched along the edge of the cliff, I was sure the left-hand wheels were partially floating on air, about to go over any minute. What felt like an hour later, but was probably five minutes, we passed the bus and started moving ever so slightly to the safer side of the road.

That’s when we hit another trench.

The Real Camino de la Muerte

The bus leaned at a solid 45-degree angle, as the locals began their silent prayers and angry shrieks. We were excruciatingly close to the edge this time, so much so that I could almost see all the way to bottom. The old ‘push the windows trick’ that had once worked so well, seemed far too risky this time. People sat frozen in their seats, too scared to move or even breathe too heavily, for fear that the bus may plummet over the edge.

With chaos around us, Janelle and I looked at each other, both thinking the same thing – this could be it. Without saying a word, we linked our arms and took several deep breaths. I thought of my family and friends back home, wishing I had kept in touch better, and that I’d told them how much I loved them. Tears began streaming down Janelle’s cheeks, as we sat frozen in our seats, not knowing what to do.

By way of what must have been a miracle, the drivers accelerating finally managed to free us and as we crept forward the right-hand side of the bus came crashing down to the ground with a thud. Janelle and I embraced, along with several local families, now trying to communicate with us using broken English and hand movements, all of us thankful we had survived this moment together.

The remainder of the journey saw several meetings with passing buses and trucks, three stops to push our own or someone else’s vehicle out of the mud after getting stuck, a few bus maintenance issues, and one two-hour stop to help rebuild a stretch of road that had turned into a deep mud-pit, impossible to cross over.

The Real Camino de la Muerte

In that crucial moment, I had realized why I travel. For me, this was a harrowing experience that I would never forget. For the others on the bus, it was likely a journey they endured repeatedly. While I was on my way to the Pampas to lounge on a boat, they were travelling north to see their families or go to work. However distressing, I had gotten a small glimpse at the strength and perseverance of these people and we were connected at this moment, no matter what language we spoke or what clothing we wore.

Covered in mud, lacking sleep, and a total of 29-hours later, we reached our final destination, thankful we had arrived at all and ready to finally relax. I guess we had gotten exactly what we wanted: the authentic Bolivian experience. With obvious relief and a slight smile, I turned to Janelle and asked, “So the way back – plane or bus?”

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