Sleet + Rain + Speed + Death Road = Awesomeness

Trip Start Dec 21, 2009
Trip End Jul 17, 2010

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Thursday, April 29, 2010

The drive around South America continues as we said our goodbyes to the eerie whiteness of the Salt Flats and head for the once splendid town of Potosi. Back in the mid 1500s, silver was found in Potosi at the site of the rainbow coloured mountain, the Cerro Rico. By the late 1700s, Potosi was the wealthiest and largest town in South America as the Spanish mined whatever they could out of the place. Millions of people died in terrible work conditions. Most of the silver is now gone but people still mine the mountain for other minerals.

One of the activities on offer was a tour of the mines to see the workers work their own patch of mine. Nic was not keen on heading to the tour and I was a little torn on whether I was going on this tour or whether I would give it the skip. You know it's bad when all the guide books warn you about the conditions in the mines. The safety conditions are one thing but I was also put off by how I would react to the young workers in the mine and the hard lives that they lead. Most miners start working at the young age of 14 or 15, with a few starting as young as 12. Most miners die from silicosis pneumonia within 10 years on entering the mine. So many of our guys who went on the tour said that the tour was good, but definitely not something you would do for fun. At the end of the day we were happy with our decision to not support this practice by paying for a tour.

We opted to head to the Casa Real de la Moneda to see the different minting machines and techniques as well as some of the cool old school safes that were used to send the cash back to Spain. Although the museum was predominantly about money and silver, there was one random room that didn’t seem to make much sense. Inside it, there were a bunch of skulls, mummified babies and a massive chart showing a geneology tree up to Adam and Eve. Weird and historically quite inaccurate. Funny if taken with a pinch of salt, scary if you actually believe it to be scientifically correct.

With Potosi behind us, we made our way to La Paz, the capital of Bolivia. The highest capital city in the world, it sits around 3.6kms above sea level. The highway into La Paz shows you the city landscape as it really is, a big bowl shape where the middle is the city and the residential areas clinging to the mountainsides and hillsides that rise all around it. It’s certainly a unique sight.

In keeping with most of this trip, it was a big city. For some reason, we never seemed to stay long enough in the big city. Nic and I would have liked to have stayed longer at some of these cities but there are some other people who probably want to move on and leave the big smoke. I guess I’m one of those people who doesn’t mind the big cities and the fast internet that usually services such places.

We had the chance to catch up with Paul and Bec who we met while travelling through Central America back at the start of this year (January seems like such a long time ago). We had a great dinner, a few beers and had a good catch up session. The next day, we were off to do some extreme downhill mountain biking down Bolivia’s death road.

The death road is the North Yungas Road that until recently was used as a real carriageway out of La Paz. Too many people died on the road so they built an alternative route. Having 300 people A YEAR die on a stretch of road that’s less than 100kms long should give a country enough of a wakeup call to build an alternative road. There are sheer drops of over 600m down, and NO GUARD RAILS WHATSOEVER. The only thing that warns a driver of a particularly dangerous stretch of road is the number of crosses dotted on the side of the road. Some of you might have watched the recent season of Top Gear where they drive on this very road and it is some scary stuff. Nevertheless, a group of us went to a local mountain biking company, signed our waiver forms and asked to be sent down the road at breakneck speed. A tourist was killed doing the exact same thing a few weeks before and we were lucky enough to have exceptionally bad weather for our ride. We would be starting at an altitude of 4640m above sea level and finishing at 1295m above sea level. That's 3345m of drop and we would do that over 64kms.

We get to the top of the ride and hop out of the vans for a briefing. Half way through the briefing, we’re greeted with sleet. That’s right, SLEET! At least we only had about 4 minutes of that before the sleet turned into a straight downpour for the remainder of the ride. We couldn’t feel our fingers at all. The only reason we knew we didn’t have frostbite was because our brain was still sending signals to our fingers to squeeze the brakes, and miracle of all miracles, the bikes actually slowed down. Needless to say that the inability to cognitively slow down on the Death Road should mark the end of one’s journey down it. The rain and mud added an extra element of fun to the whole thing and even though the guides said stuff like, "It’s not a race" or “We’re here for a safe time”, the boys and I still raced down the hill and had a blast doing it.

Nic and I decided to reward ourselves with some Asian food so we separated from the group and found a Japanese/Thai place that Paul and Bec recommended to us. We went in there, the restaurant was empty so we ordered a few dishes to take away. An hour later, were still waiting for our food. Our queries as to the whereabouts of our food were greeted with silence. Another 30 minutes later and our more vocal queries about our food was greeted in a slight giggle from the girl behind the counter followed by her disappearance into the kitchen, from which she never emerged. That was the end of our tether. We walked out, hungry and angry. For all we know, she’s still in that kitchen waiting for us to pass out from hunger or die of starvation in the dining room, at which point she could climb over our slumped bodies, turn the lights out and leave for home without incurring our wrath. I pity the fool who might have come up to us that night and tried to mug us. I would have taken a Mike Tyson chomp out of him before he knew what hit him. As my mate Ilan would say about my alter ego, “Hungry Col is a scary, scary monster....”

The next day we woke up and did some souvenir shopping at the Witches Market. There we bought alpaca socks, a few t-shirts and handicrafts but we could have just as easily bought magical potions, herbs and llama foetuses which are used as good luck (seriously). I would have taken pictures but the ladies here don’t seem to like pictures being taken of them and I don’t like photographing people who don’t like their pictures being taken (even the sneaky pictures, I don’t really do).

In our next blog, we head to Lake Titicaca, sleep on the floor of a hotel conference room, find out how literal property division can be on a floating comminity and enjoy the sights of Cusco before we head to the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu.
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Philip Davies on

Hiya U2 how amazing are you both would I love to have the nerve to do the bike ride!!!!!!!!! Cheers Phil Dxxx

travellingtans on

There are moments in life when you just shouldn't think about the danger or stupidity of things. Riding down the death road in pouring rain is one of them. :-)

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