Tuesday, 12 June 2012

The World’s Most Dangerous Road in Bolivia?

La Paz sits between 3,600m and 4050m in the west of Bolivia, in the middle of the Andes in an enormous high altitude plateau. The Cordillera Real are a ridge of mountains of over 600 peaks above 5,000m which runs west to East, North of La Paz. Lake Titicaca is to the east and sits at 3,600m. There are various peaks that are at around 6,500m and the closer you get to a peak the higher you go, these are part of the Cordillera Real.

From La Paz, there is a road that runs north east up through La Cumbre, which is at it’s highest point.  Here the road is at 5,000m and enters Cotopata National Park, where you can look up to higher peaks around you.  Up until this point the road is wide and straight, increasing height gradually.  The road then continues down from this point, through a pass, and the start of “The World’s Most Dangerous Road”.  The scenery is the most spectacular that I have ever seen, impossible to capture on film.  As the road drops, part of the Cordillera Real sits above on the right, a sheer sided mountain range.  There are high mountains on all sides as the road zigzags down, with enormous drops down from it.  This section of road has been improved, with barriers in sections and wide enough for two cars to pass.  However, there is no room for driver error.  A small error on a British motorway might lead to you hitting the cat’s eyes by the side of the road, here it leads to death.  The road carries on to Coroico, where it’s statistical label ends, but this is due to a reduction of traffic and therefore numbers of accidents, rather than because the road is any better.  In fact, the road conditions become much worse as the road drops down to Rurrenabaque at 450m, in the Amazon.

There is a steady flow of coaches, lorries and cars on the road as it is the major artery to the Amazon and onto Brazil.  This makes the dangers of the road increased, with coaches overtaking slow moving lorries coming up the mountainside.   Before joining the road, a checkpoint ensures that all vehicles have a first aid kit, emergency triangle and fire extinguisher.

We stopped at La Cumbre and managed to see Rufous-Bellied and Grey-Breasted Seedsnipe, Silvery Grebe, Common Miner, Slender-Billed Miner and White-Winged Diuca-Finch before breakfast in the cold. Our new blankets were certainly coming in useful. We stopped again at 3,500m and saw Tawny and Andean Tit-Spinetail, Line-Fronted and Scribble-Tailed Canastero, d’Orbigny’s Chat-Tyrant, Paramo Seedeater and White-Browed Conebill.

Birdgril examining some ice at La Cumbre

Half way along the road to Coroico, we tried to turn off right along a narrow gravel road.  However, the road was closed with a few branches placed across it.  This is the old road to Coroico, which was in fact “The Most World’s Most Dangerous Road” until 12 years ago when the new improved section of road was built.  Now it is only used by local traffic and cyclists looking for a thrill.  It was not clear why the road was closed and I was up for moving the branches to get by, as we only wanted to go a couple of miles, to stop for birding.  Thankfully, Herman did not think that was such a good idea!  We therefore headed back towards La Paz and after a couple of miles turned left down the mountainside onto another narrow gravel road.  This was the road we were taking to Chulumani.  This road was not wide enough for vehicles to pass in most places and was so dusty it was difficult to see if there was any traffic ahead.  The road winded down one mountain and up the next, continuing for four hours to Chulumani.  It took 100% concentration from Herman, there was no room for tiredness and virtually nowhere to stop.  Sandro explained that since the new section of road was build to Coroico, this road to Chulumani had now become “The World’s Most Dangerous Road”, due to the number of deaths per year.  The road seemed dangerous enough in our 4x4, but there were large numbers of buses and lorries using the road, having to reverse on bends to give way to each other, always a sheer drop to one side.

After two hours, we stopped for some (very dusty) roadside birding whilst Herman rustled up lunch. This was middle yungas forest and we managed to see Slaty Thrush, Dusky-Green Oropendula, Bolivian Brush-Finch and Rust-and-Yellow Tanager.

When we returned, there was another car parked and a guy dressed in city clothes shouting up to his friends who were climbing up a path. The two friends appeared in their casual city clothes, which seems thoroughly inappropriate for their walk but they did have boots on. After they left, Herman explained (via Sandro) that the men were from Santa Cruz and 12 days ago the one at the bottom had been driving from La Paz to Rurrenabaque when his car went over the edge. He managed to jump out but the police had told him that his car had ended up 600m below. He had returned to the area and his friends were trying to find the car and retrieve some “personal belongings”. We were innocently discussing whether it might have been something of sentimental value or cash, when Herman said that he thought that it must have been cocaine in the car and that the man was probably worried that it might be found at some point and traced back to him. Although the subject was serious, the scene did seem very comical and almost something out of Soprano’s.

It was 7pm before we reached out destination and I found the last few hours particularly stressful. I was tired and kept falling asleep, waking up concerned as to whether Herman was wide awake. Every time a vehicle came from the opposite direction, we had to pull over and wait somewhere safe, not wanting to risk having to reverse back. In many places the road had fallen away, making it even narrower or with cliffs overhanging the road where it seemed impossible for anything higher than us to pass.

We stayed two nights at Apa Apa Lodge, birding the next day at their nearby reserve. This was lower yungas forest and had been turned into a reserve by the owner. He had inherited the land and hacienda along with his 4 brothers, but had bought them out in order to turn it into a reserve and lodge. Here we saw Planato Hermit, Scaled Metaltail (both hummingbirds), Blue-Banded Toucanet, Yungas Tody-Tyrant, Ashy Antwren and Scimitar-Winged Piha. The highlight of the day was two jaguarondi walking across the path. They were like thin black cats with long tails but larger heads and more pointed ears. Sandro said that he had only seen them once before near his community.

The next morning we headed back along the same road (Chulumani road) back towards La Paz. We stopped again in the same place for breakfast and a bit of birding whilst Herman packed up. We managed to see a Black-Throated Thistletail, we was a new bird for us. At 9.30am it was like a different place. We commented on how quiet the road was and how much more pleasant. We had just got back into the car when a few buses and lorries passed, which seemed strange that they were all bunched together, but perhaps they were all stuck behind a slow moving vehicle. The next half an hour, we admired the view and commented on the sheer drops. I had just commented to Chris that it seemed impossible to be able to recover people if there was an accident when we came to a stop soon after a bend. There had been an accident ahead and there was an emergency vehicle parked to the left of the road with a winch dropping down the sheer drop to the right. There was a coach stopped ahead and a group of people looking grimly down the cliff.

We all got out of the vehicle to find out what had happened. This was the reality of this road. A 12-seater mini bus had gone down the side in the early hours of the morning. One body and luggage had been recovered from the vehicle but the remaining bodies were scattered in the undergrowth and had not yet been located. The winch was being used by emergency services to climb hundreds of metres below to search for bodies. The vehicle could not be seen from above and the only tell tale sign was some of the road being lost over the side. Someone had witnessed the accident; otherwise no one would have known what had happened to the bus. The road was straight here and as no other vehicles were involved it was likely to be caused by the driver falling asleep or misjudging the road in fog. As more vehicles stopped, more people joined the sombre and silent group. Meanwhile the luggage was being opened and relatives being telephoned.

Sandro looked visibly upset and told me that he was feeling very anxious. This was reminding him of the accident two years ago with 40 dead. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder clearly does exist everywhere. It seemed best to take Sandro and Birdgirl away from the accident scene, so we headed off up the road birding though it did still feel heartless.

We managed to head off the road along a track and could see the main Coroico road above and the Chulumani road below. This must have been where the cocaine man had gone over the edge of the road. We could see a few people further on the Chulumani side of the valley looking up at the accident site, presumably relatives trying to see evidence of bodies. We suddenly saw vehicles coming back up the road, so guessed that vehicles were being allowed to pass. We rushed back but ended up missing Herman pass, so had to walk back up to the main road to try and find him. This climb was like being back in Colombia!

After a few minutes, Herman returned to find us and we headed for our birding destination – the old Coroico Road. Herman had discovered that it was closed due to a landslide, so he dropped us off and drove off to enter the road from another point ahead. We had only been walking along the narrow gravel road for 20 minutes when we came across the landslide. The whole road had broken away, leaving it impossible to even climb around on any bank. It was a good job that Herman had not listened to me and driven into the closed road. It would be touch and go as to whether a vehicle could have stopped in time on the gravel road.

We could see Herman parked up ahead, cooking lunch but had no phone reception. We tried shouting to him, but got no response other than from some locals on the mountainside below. Giving up, we had no option but to walk back to the main road, walk along the main road (not advisable) and then down the next road, which then joins up with the old Coroico road. On this stretch of road I noticed a small memorial stone by the side of the road, similar to the many we had seen that day, but this time written in Hebrew with 9 names on it. Sandro said that he had heard about this accident, an Israeli family were heading for Rurrenabaque and had come off the main road, killing them all. Rurrenabaque received lots of Israeli tourists, due to two Israeli’s who were lost in the Amazon in the 1980’s and wrote a book about their experience. Birdgirl had already noticed that many of the memorials had fresh flowers on them, so were clearly visited regularly.

We eventually got around to where lunch was waiting. Herman had heard some shouting, but hadn’t realised it was us. After lunch, we finally set off birding along the road at 2.00pm, 3 hours late. We birded and drove our way down this road, which was extremely narrow with sheer drops. I found this road to be extremely nerve-racking, even with no other traffic. At one point we were overtaken by an Argentine cyclist, who stopped to find out what we were doing. In the other direction, we were passed by two La Paz mini buses with bikes on the roof full of adrenaline seeking tourists. I can see why they might want to do it – downhill all the way! The birding was very quiet, though we did see two endemics. The only new bird was Hooded Mountain-Toucan which I missed, I say because it was perched in a tree miles away on the other side of the mountainside and neither Sandro nor Chris had a scope on them. I was not happy (again!).

As the mist rose, we gave up on seeing other Mountain-Toucan and headed back along the road back to La Paz. Just as we reached the outskirts of La Paz, we were heading downhill along a straight stretch of road when our brakes failed. Sandro helped by yanking up the handbrake and we just about managed to avoid hitting the car in front. Herman then pulled over and hailed a taxi for us to get back to the hotel. Chris and I had missed all of this as we were involved in a maths lesson with Birdgirl, but she had witnessed it all from the back. In the taxi, Sandro vocalised what we were all thinking – we were so lucky that the brakes had not failed on the mountain roads, as we might otherwise be dead.

View back up to the road

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