As a younger lass, my father was an Latin American Anthropologist, and my mother a native of Bolivia. A country filled of contrasts, vibrant with life and certainly a lesser traveled destination. I had lived in La Paz, Bolivia during part of my high-school years, attending the prestigious private American school along with children of diplomats and wealthy Bolivians.
I’ve had the good fortune to have returned twice before and it’s been nearly 30 years since my last visit. In recent years, I’ve found myself struggling in elevations higher than sea-level and I knew it was time for me to return to the Andes region of Bolivia to enjoy it while I could still breathe.
After much planning, and enlisting the companionship of my dear friend, photography mentor and exceptional world-wide renowned photographer Denise Ippolito to join me, we took to the air to land in La Paz Airport. Immediately feeling the 13,323 feet of altitude I was grateful that I had planned the trip to gradually acclimatize us to high altitude.
Arriving at the wee-hours of the morning, our driver/guide Gerardo Hartman of Expeditours whisked us away and drove us towards the highland cloud forest region of Yungas. With a special Coca tea concoction made by Gery we arrived to “La Cumbre” the highest point on the La Paz to Yungas Road with an air sucking 15,300 feet.
Our guide was a true Bolivian. A person of contrasts combining his Catholic heritage with local Aymara customs he would stop along our route at sacred posts to pray for safe travels. From La Cumbre, we could see the winding road that lead downward towards the Yungas region. Passing an active gold mine in the hills, green forests enveloped in mystical clouds invited us to continue on our path downward from such high elevations.
We were to travel on the south road of Yungas to Chulumani, but as with all things Bolivian “All is possible – nothing is certain” the south road had succumbed to mud slides and the road was closed. With ease we quickly changed our direction to the northern route which lead to Coroico. Unplanned was for us to travel on the notorious “World’s Most Dangerous Road” or the Death Road, but now it was in the direction we were heading.
When I was younger, this was the only road to get in and out of the Yungas region. With its hairpin turns on unpaved roads and waterfalls streaming over causing mud slides when least expected. Trucks and cars would tumble over the edge when rushing around corners without the preemptive honking of the car horn. I remember it being precarious and sometimes watching the cars and buses squeeze a mere inch from each other caused you to hold your breath and pray that you’d remain on the road. It was known to claim 200 to 300 lives per year during the 1980’s.
A new and paved road was built in 2007 having all main traffic bypass the Death Road. Now the Death Road is quiet and peaceful, winding around primary forest offering serenity. Silent from the lives it has taken many decades before.
Our early start allowed us to avoid the many tourist bicycle groups that ride the Death Road down to Coroico. Gery informed us that many of these groups take unseasoned bicyclists and the Death Road still continues to hold up to its claim with 22 bikers that have lost their lives since 1998 and countless others that have fallen and been injured. To get a feel of what it’s like to bike it, check out this great Youtube video (Thanks Fresh Coffee Stains for such a great clip!)
At long last, we arrived to Coroico just in time for lunch to to enjoy the warm and humid air of the Yungas. A lovely 5,000 feet of altitude. Just a minor step towards our ultimate altitude goal of our trip to Bolivia.