Tag Archives: Bolivia

Flashback Friday | A Christmas Miracle

I tightly clutched my St Christopher’s medal, and whispered a prayer “protect me”.  Even though I consider myself Catholic, I’m not a very good one.  Perhaps all this time in these heavily Catholic countries is wearing  off on me.  I gave Christopher one last squeeze, and tucked him safely under my shirt.  In reality, I was praying for a miracle.  A miracle that I would 1. finish and 2.not crash.

I took a drug test [they don’t let anyone under the influence of drugs or alcohol ride], took a swig of some vile-tasting alcoholic beverage, [oh, the irony] sprinkled some of the same liquid on my bicycle tires and the ground, and said a prayer to PanchaMama.  I wouldn’t want to go pissing off Mother Earth with my prayer to the patron saint of travel.

I solemnly swear that I am up to no good.

I  loaded up on the safety gear…elbow pads, knee pads, helmet, bright safety vest, wind-suit….  Had there been more, I would have put it on too.  What in the world had possessed me to sign up for a 40+ mile bike ride from La Paz, Bolivia to Senda Verde, Bolivia…a bike ride that changes in elevation from 15,900 ft to 3600 ft…a bike ride that travels a road with the moniker World’s Most Dangerous Road?  Did I mention that I didn’t learn to ride a bike until I was 18, and I have never been very graceful on 2 wheels? Did I mention it was Christmas Day? In Bolivia?

To be fair, it’s technically not considered the “World’s Most Dangerous Road” anymore. Due to the construction of a new highway close by, which directs most traffic away from its path, they’ve recently upgraded the trail’s nickname to a much more simple, passive and inviting moniker… “The Death Road”.

I’d hate to see the new road that has earned the name of World’s Most Dangerous Road

The ‘Practice’ Death Road

The start of the Death Road is located around an hour outside of La Paz, high up in the mountains.

The road’s twists and turns through the jungle as it winds down the steep road make it a scary path to travel. There are very few barriers stopping you from falling off the edge which makes it more dangerous than roads in other mountainous areas. The dirt road is full of potholes and scattered gravel meaning you have to stay focused for the entire four hours it takes to bike the road, bouncing over dips and bumps.

It was cold and rainy and as we sped down the highway I became soaked to the skin and started wondering why I’d even signed up for this in the first place. It was so misty that I could hardly see the view of the valley below which gave me a false sense of security because I couldn’t see how steep the drop off was to the right side of me.

All of a sudden there was a large BANG!

The tire of the person who was riding in front of me burst and rubber flew into the air.  As a side note, whenever I am driving on the interstate, this is my worst fear.

We pulled over and the we had a look a the damage. The tire had completely exploded, leaving nothing but loose rubber flapping around the metal rim.

At the top of the Death Road we received another briefing.  “Try not to stand up on your bike if you’re not a confident mountain biker. Try not to grip the brakes the entire time. Leave a good 10 meters between yourself and the person in front of you. Stay alert,” our guide told us.  I mentally calculate how far 10 meters is.  [about 30 feet or so for those wondering]

Under the guide of our tour leaders, we rode slowly five minutes further down the road before stopping for a sandwich and getting a new tire put on the damaged bike.  We piled into the van after this biking practice and snack and set off for the Death Road. It was eerily quiet as we drove.

I’m not sure what was going through everyone else’s head, but I had visions of my tire bursting and me losing control of my bike, being thrown to my death in the valley below.  Or someone else taking me out.  Either would be bad.

Dramatic, yes.  Out of the realm of possibility, absolutely not…

What they don’t tell you:  The Death Road is Quite Stunning

Perhaps one of the biggest dangers of the Death Road is that it’s so damn beautiful.  Valleys of green surround you and with each twist of the road there’s a chance you’ll come across a waterfall  or two cascading down from the top of the mountain.

When the rain stopped and I got hot from the exercise, it was easier to notice the beautiful vistas around me.  But I didn’t want to look too hard – I needed all my concentration to stay safe on the Death Road.

As we bounced down the beginning of the dirt track on the most dangerous road in the world, I began to realize that it was near impossible NOT to hold my brakes the entire time.  I’m the girl who rides my brakes on the Swamp Rabbit Trail; I most certainly was doing it here.  As soon as I let go, I picked up speed and felt as though I was going to lose control.

So the whole way down the mountain I gripped the brakes. Gently at some points and more vigorously at others.

Perhaps this gives you an idea of why I clinched the brakes so much.  At times, I could hardly see the rider in front of me.

My hands are not the strongest part of me.   So listen to me now: gripping mountain bike brakes for four hours was extremely painful.  Excruciatingly painful, but necessary.

So many times I was tempted to give up and ride in the van that was slowly following us down the road, but I held out.

No, we did not all fall over the edge of the cliff…we’re just taking a break.

Almost the end of me

The only time I managed to let go of the handlebars was when I wanted to fiddle with my camera which was slung across my chest…

And this was nearly the death of me.

I’d been recording video on my camera for awhile and wanted to preserve the battery life. So I let go of the handlebar with my right hand and, while looking down, I tried to feel for the off button.  BIG mistake.  

HUGE MISTAKE.

All of a sudden I found myself on the other side of the road, dangerously close to the edge. As I tried to swerve away from the cliff below, I jerked the handlebars too hard and fell towards the edge.

I felt as though I was moving in slow motion.

I think I screamed and tried to right myself but to no avail.

I was falling.

Thud.

I had landed on a patch of ground that jutted out over the cliff. Just behind where I’d fallen, entangled in my bike, was the open air leading to the bottom of the mountain.

In front of where I’d fallen was a sharp drop.   I watch the camera tumble over the cliff.

I’d literally fallen within centimeters of my death or serious injury.

“OH MY GOD. Are you okay?” the guide pulled up behind me, out of breath.

“Yeah, I’m fine.” I tried to laugh. It sounded strangled.

“You scared me!” he said as he helped me up.

“Sorry!” I replied.

The End of the Road

I was shaken after my fall but not too shaken to keep on going. With hands tensed on the brakes, sending shooting pains up my arms, I managed to finish the Death Road with the other people in my group.

It felt like a massive achievement.

But the biggest reward for me was that I was still alive. My fall was a close call and really put a new spin on the term ‘living on the edge’.

Is it an experience I’d ever repeat?  Hell no.  Am I glad I did it when I did?  Absolutely.  Let’s just say I was never as happy to see a suspect swimming pool as I was when we got to Senda Verde lodge.

Huffing and Puffing in Potosi

I am not a tea drinker, but I also don’t like taking medications. However, altitude sickness is no joke. And Diamox was not working. So, I bowed to pressure and tried the local cure for altitude sickness… coca leaves.  At first, the idea of buying coca leaves seems almost rebellious.  After all, coca leaves are the beginning product cocaine.  Drinking coca leaf tea was a novelty for me. It  has a bitter taste; it’s primarily coca leaves and hot water. But being in the world’s highest city requires some concessions, and for me, that concession was ingesting coca leaf–in my case, by chewing the leaves.

Coca leaves became an integral part of my day; I chewed the leaves multiple times a day, and each time, I got a little mental boost–a bit of alertness to soothe the metal sluggishness that goes along with altitude sickness.  In some way, I became addicted to the sticky green masticated leaves–it was the only thing that soothed my altitude sickness and made my stay in Potosi enjoyable.

coca leaf
Sticky, green, masticated, coca leaves… my only salvation from the crushing pressure of altitude sickness.

Altitude sickness aside, spending two week in Potosi, was a great decision. A better decision, perhaps, would have been to come to Potosi from La Paz instead of the realitively flat Cochebamba.

At 13,500 ft above sea level, Potosi will literally take your breath away, but it’s colonial charms will figuratively leave you breathless.

Potosi Bolivia 2

Potosi is a UNESCO protected city and walking around the flat parts of the city, it’s easy to marvel over the beauty of the buildings or wonder what the area must have been like when the Spanish discovered the silver in the Cerro Rico mountain that looms over the city. However, when walking uphill around the city, which is at least half the time, my will to explore was seriously in question. But my desire to explore won out, and while walking down the well-maintained colonial streeets it’s easy to imagine the hustle and bustle of the 16th and 17th century when Potosi was one of the world’s richest and had a population larger than Madrid.

cerro rico

On the darker side of things, it’s also easy to imagine the amount of work that mining the silver for which this town gained famed, and how that work would have been done. When the Spanish discovered the Cerro Rico in 1544 it was the richest source of silver in the known world. Potosi and Spain grew rich from the proceeds, but this wealth came at an tremendous cost in human and animal lives and pain and suffering. The Spanish brought an estimated 30,000 Africian slaves, enslaved indigenous locals, used untold numbers of horse and llama to get the goods to the Atlantic coast to ship to Spain. Historians claim that the system of slavery that Spain’s Viceroy Toledo created resulted in a massive depopulation of the Andean highlands. The mortality rates in the mines were amazingly high, and over the next three hundred years, the Spanish authorities, in collusion with the mine owners and the Catholic Church, pressed millions of indigenous Andean peoples into slavery to work in the mines.
It’s estimated that the barbaric conditions in the mines caused the deaths of between eight and ten million indigenous and African slaves.

money machine potosi boliva

So important was the Cerro Rico, and so entwined was the Catholic Church with the mines, that all the churches in Potosi point not to the east, but to the mountain, and some of the religious art is shaped to represent the pyramid shape of the mountain. If you want to see some Bolivian silver, there’s plenty on display in Potosi’s churches, but you could equally go to any of the major cathedrals in Spain to uncover where all that silver went.

san teresa convent

The Spanish brought the Catholic Church’s Inquisition to the Spanish colonies, something dramatically depicted in the painting below. As per usual, it was often women on the receiving end of ingenious methods of torture…

san teresa convent