Jalpuna

The World's Most Dangerous Road

Last Friday evening, I enjoyed an unbelievable coincidence and I've been thinking about it ever since.

* * * Nightline * * *

Have you ever had a "that's not a knife" moment? You know what I'm talking about. 1986... Crocodile Dundee... ring a bell?

Sue: "Mick, give him your wallet."
Mick: "What for?"
Sue: "He's got a knife."
Mick (brandishing his own weapon): "That's not a knife. This is a knife."

A recap of my evening:

I was sitting on the couch with a bag of chips destined to be dunked in salsa while watching late night TV. Actually, I'm not sure how much TV the chips were able to see as they made their way from bag to salsa to mouth, but this isn't about them anyway.

...so, I was flipping channel to channel, and for some reason, I decided to see what was on Nightline.

I haven't watched Nightline in years. I'm more of a Daily Show/Colbert Report fan, but those shows don't air on Fridays, and for good reason. No one is around to watch them. Come to think of it, for a guy my age to be watching Nightline on a Friday night, it has to be some kind of desperate cry for help. That guy needs to get laid, right? And sure, that could easily be the topic of this post - but it isn't.

...so, I was flipping channel to channel, and for some reason, for the first time in years, I decided to see what was on Nightline.

Roll opening credits... "This is Nightline for Friday, January 11th, 2008..." blah blah. "Tonight ... a journey along the world's most dangerous road."

"THAT'S NOT A KNIFE!" I cried out at the TV, much to the chips' confusion.

We've reached the moment where a statement will be presented as fact, and I will dispute it.

TV Reporter: "...a journey along the world's most dangerous road."

Rob: "...oh please."

Chip en route to salsa: "It sure looks like a dangerous road."

Rob (brandishing his Lonely Planet guidebook): "That's not a dangerous road. This is a dangerous road."

Crunch.

* * * Hiking The Choro Trail * * *

I was a high school kid living as an exchange student in Bolivia. I had a bad photocopy of an even worse map of an old Inca trail and a vague set of instructions that went a little something like this:

"Go to a part of La Paz called Villa Fatima. You'll be able to find a truck to hitch to the start of the trail. Tell the driver to drop you off at the statue of Christ near La Cumbre. It's huge. He'll know what you're talking about. The trail veers off to the left. You'll find it. The hike should take you about four days. Good luck."

011508-bolivia-truck.jpg

The word 'summer' can be deceiving when you're high in the Andes. The town of La Cumbre, which is really just a few houses, sits at an elevation of almost 16,000 feet. When the truck stopped so we could climb out, a thick layer of clouds was rolling in. And it was snowing. In the middle of summer.

Just for the record, I was seventeen and my friend was sixteen. Neither of us had a clue what we were getting ourselves into. We were both beginning to become fluent in Spanish, but it made little difference where we were going. The common language there would be Quechua - once the language of the Incas.

011508-bolivia-statue.jpg

Hiking an Inca trail is an experience I have trouble putting into words. It was beyond amazing.

The good news was that nearly the entire trail was downhill. We began hiking at nearly 16,000 feet and ended at an elevation of around 4,000 feet, beginning on a bleak rocky mountaintop and ending in a lush subtropical valley. The change of scenery along the way is astounding, not to mention the occasional Inca ruins.

011508-bolivia-trail.jpg

The bad news was that neither of us had any experience hiking nor any clue what we were doing, but we had a tent, a week's worth of supplies, and the sort of clueless ambition that only a teenager could possess.

011508-bolivia-trail1.jpg

The four day trail took us nearly a week to hike.

It was the rainy season. That's an important fact considering the trail had been paved in stone hundreds of years ago. And parts of the paving that were still intact were goddamn slippery. Imagine mossy stones worn down over a few hundred years.

By the third day of hiking down into a tropical valley, the trail was overgrown to the point that it was hard to follow.

And then there were the bridges we crossed along the way. For me, these were the highlight of the trail.

This looked friendly enough. A bunch of thick branches supported and roped together. OK.

011508-bolivia-bridge1.jpg

This one was a little less friendly since it swung and swayed as we crossed it (one at a time, I should add).

011508-bolivia-bridge2.jpg

And this one was... hey wait. What the HELL?

Yes, this is a picture of me, many years ago, swinging across a raging stream by a cable.

011508-bolivia-bridge3.jpg

You can imagine our shock when we arrived at a bridge more frightening than the previous James Bond style cable.

Note the sections where branches are missing. Also, for a sense of the size of the scene and the length of this bridge, take a look at the tree on the lower left in the ravine below.

011508-bolivia-bridge4.jpg

Amazingly, even after we'd finished the hike and were relaxing in the tropical village of Corroico, we still had one more surprise waiting for us: The Yungas Road. ("Yungas" refers to the deep lush Andean valleys in Bolivia)

* * * Swooooosh!!!!! * * *

The return trip to La Paz involves another ride in the back of a truck. No big deal, I thought. I'd hitch-hiked plenty of times by that point. Nothing could surprise me.

Right?

011508-bolivia-return.jpg

The road from Corroico to La Paz was unlike anything I could have imagined. It connected a few towns in the low sub-tropical valleys with the capital of La Paz high in the Andes. Being that we'd spent a week hiking straight down from 16,000 to 4,000 feet, that meant the road back to La Paz would be a climb into the clouds, and it sure was.

We hitched a ride in the back of a truck with twenty other people, and away we all went.

As the truck traversed its way through the Andes along this road, we passed cross after cross, marking spots where previous vehicles had slid off and plunged to their passengers' deaths. On one side of the road would be a cliff, and on the other, a vertical drop.

At one point, the truck lurched around a corner and there was a scream. As I spun around to see what was going on, a wall of water flooded us all. Swooosh!!!! We'd driven through a waterfall. A stream made of melting glacier water was flowing straight down over the cliff, splattering onto the road and then flowing down the mountain on the other side.

We drove through at least three of these waterfalls, each preceded by a scream.

Years later, I found the following quote about that road in a guidebook written by Lonely Planet:

"Although rumour has it that a road more terrifying than the one between La Paz and the Yungas exists somewhere in Zanskar or Bhutan, we won't believe it until we see it."

And that brings me back to this past Friday night.

* * * Nightline * * *

I hadn't watched Nightline in years. What are the odds that on the evening when I finally DO watch the show, they're talking about the world's most dangerous road - and indeed it was THAT ROAD!

011108-bolivia.jpg

I have to admit, I was thrilled. Watching this story was like stepping back in time. I could picture it all so clearly in my mind. The cliffs, the views, and the rocks that would fly out from under our tires and fall off the cliff on the other side of the road. I could even hear the screams and remember how icy cold the water was as it flooded us all in the back of the truck. I remembered the disbelief. "Did we just go through a fucking waterfall?!?" And just when I started to get over the shock of it, we drove through another one. "Awe SON OF A...!!!!!!"

Apparently, the road is no longer the main route into the Yungas. A new 'safer' road was built a decade ago, and now adventure cycling type groups ride along the old one simply because they can.

What a bizarre world.

What a small, bizarre world.

Thanks for the memories Nightline. I might have to watch you again sometime.

::::: | Wednesday, Jan 16 2008 at 12:36 AM
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Comments:


scot said:

I freakin' love your South America stories! Thanks for that one!

::::: | January 22, 2008 7:35 PM




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