May 16, 2004

el camino del muerte

"I Survived The World's Most Dangerous Road" proudly proclaims the T-shirt I did not receive. Because they're out of shirts, not because I post from beyond the grave.

3600 vertical metres in 5 hours is quite a ride. We began in stark high-altitude where nothing grew but lichen and where the sides of the road were limned with ice, and, layered in many clothes, bombed down steep and exquisitely sinuous asphalt at speeds circa 70kph/40mph. Then, suddenly, two lanes shrank to one, asphalt turned to extremely rocky dirt, and the adrenaline began to seriously flow.

To our left, about a metre or two away, sheer drops of up to 1000 feet. To our right, equally sheer cliffs (at one point we rode behind a waterfall for about fifty feet). Before and behind us, enormous trucks oozing their slow way up and down incredibly twisted rocky road. When they stand off, which happens fairly often, the downhill vehicle has to back up to a passing bay, aka one of the little projections of road into emptiness every hundred or so metres.

It's actually less dangerous than it might sound, with the possible exception of the last hour, which is over road so dusty that if you're in the back of a train of bicycles a lot of your navigation becomes guesswork. Mostly it's just a matter of confidence. And it's not lack of confidence but overconfidence which is most dangerous: they've only lost one cyclist on this road (or so they claim), an Israeli girl who went straight over the edge a couple of years ago while trying to pass someone else. Many, many vehicle passengers, though, hundreds, though the drops are generally too far and too steep to see the wrecks.

And also five Martyrs of Democracy; a monument en route reports that in 1944, the Bolivian military took five leaders of the opposition party up onto this road, bound their arms and legs, shot them in the head, and threw them off the edge. A bit redundant if you ask me.

I am now in Coroico, in the Hotel Esmeralda, and there has been a bank error in my favour; I booked a cheap room, but they lost the booking, so I got an expensive one instead. Satellite TV, cushy bed, balcony with amazing mountainous view, and a choice of lime or orange soap, all for nine Yankee dollars. Tomorrow I take a bus back up TWMDR to La Paz; the following day, back to Lake Titicaca and Puno; the following day, to Lima; and late Thursday night, I fly away from South America, back to civilization, or at least what passes for civilization in Los Angeles.

Now they're playing Neil Young, "After The Gold Rush." Even the little details of this day have been very good indeed.


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