Life is much more brilliant when death lies 600 metres below. We met at a point where the dry altiplano gave way to soft rolling mountains, where dense clouds marched sluggishly across vibrating jungles. We met on a path cleaved out of the side of the mountain, a dusty coloured scar that carved its way through the dark green of the jungle above and below. We met at a point decorated with crosses to commemorate the dead, medals of honour for those taken by the road. We met at a point where the entire world balances on an inch of hard packed dirt, staring over the edge into an oblivion of jungle. We met and we stopped.
Two buses of similar size but opposite directions, one faced north, heading further into the density of the great jungle, the other faced south, returning to the dry dustiness of the vast altiplano. South sloped downwards, and therefore sat alongside the safety of the jungle, north sloped upwards, and therefore the bus stood over the threat of falling. We faced the north, but our eyes turned towards the depth below us, over half a kilometre separated ourselves and the stream below. The crosses that lined the road stared at us mockingly; there was no comfort in knowing.
The drivers returned to their respective busses, with the finesse of generals they had strategized their approach, every move calculated, every inch accounted for, lest the charge falter and half the force be lost to the fall. We feel the bus lurch into gear, an improvised sermon is sent skyward by the occupants of the bus, fingers travelling from foreheads across chests, all but we four. We four fair skinned, bright eyed gringos, inexperienced and jovial, we smile and peer over the edge into the heart of darkness, we laugh nervously as others pray, we are unholy, but we are blessed.
The bus jerks forward deliberately, making short, acute movements, dancing and sidestepping the bus to our right, avoiding the fall to our left. Stop, go, adjust, stop, go adjust, stop, go, adjust, stop, go, fall sideways. The two front wheels on the left side lose the grip of the dirt and find themselves floating dangerously over the abyss, the left side of the bus lurches over the edge of the cliff leading down 600 metres, for a split second those of us pressed against the glass of the bus peer down into the jungle below us, the entire history of the universe is played in slow motion in the span of half a second, and then the driver rights the bus and we lurch back. Both drivers wave to one another as they separate, I laugh hysterically with my companions, the inside of the bus shudders with relief. We speed northward, around another bend in the road, towards a similar point adorned with crosses, and a similar bus heading in the opposite direction.
Our first morning in Bolivia involved us hurriedly packing our things and grabbing a cab to the other side of the city where we could grab a bus to Rurrenebaque, a town that was used by many as a jumping off point into the Amazon jungle. We purchased tickets for the 24 hour bus for about 12 dollars Canadian, it’s no wonder I cannot stand Greyhound here in Canada.. Unfortunately immediately after buying our tickets one of my travel companions realized he had lost his passport, assuming he had been pickpocketed we retraced our steps and asked around the bus stop, with no luck we called the hostel to see if it had been left there, and of course, it was. We jumped in a cab back to the hostel to pick up the passport of the “gringo estupido” and on the way back the cab driver gave us a pretty in-depth tour of La Paz, explaining the neighbourhoods, the history, and general info, he accepted no money for the tour, charging us the exact same far that the previous taxi drivers had for the trip across town.
With time to kill we wandered around the markets and grabbed some food, as well as search for the famous coca leaves. Coca leaves are best known in North America for their use in making the drug cocaine. However in order to make cocaine, huge amounts of coca and several chemical reactions are required. Coca is used by many people throughout South America, especially those living in high altitudes, as a way to fight altitude sickness, hunger, cold, and a multitude of other afflictions. Knowing that we would be going up in the mountains on our trip into the jungle, and feeling beat up by the high altitude, as well as the itch to try something new and so important to Bolivian culture, we bought a bag of the leaves.
We returned to the street where we were told to meet the buses, loaded our things in and took our seats at the back of the bus. Slowly we climbed out of La Paz and headed towards the Death Road. Now before I explain the Death Road, my travel buddies and I had spoken about the possibility of taking the Death Road, something I really wanted to do, but we had read that it was closed down and could not be used to get to the Amazon, however the Bolivian girls on the bus that we chatted with soon informed us that this bus was taking the Death Road, needless to say I was stoked!
The Death Road, officially called Yungas Road, is a road that connects La Paz to the rainforest region of the Bolivian Amazon. It is known as the Death Road because it cuts through the mountains of Bolivia, the majority of the road is only wide enough for one vehicle, about 10 ft, and with the absence of guard rails, vehicles are faced with a fall of over half a kilometre. The road is dubbed the “most dangerous road” in the world; approximately 300 people are killed on it every year. We were informed of our journey through the death road at about the same time we realized there was no washroom on the bus, equally dangerous. We were forced to quickly relieve ourselves at the various military outposts, some of which included having an assault rifle pointed at us while being asked where we were going.
Finally we reached the portion of the road that becomes dangerous as it cuts across the mountains, and excuse my language but HOLY SHIT. The road was terrifyingly exciting, I spent the majority of the journey pressed up against the glass laughing my face off, because what else could you do, while some members of my group took the trip a bit harder, hopefully the locals on the bus could not understand curse words in English. The scenery itself was breathtaking, waves of clouds engulfed the tops of the mountains far in the distance, the jungles below and above us were incredible and the river that cut through the mountains was awesome. Many of the tight corners along the road were filled with crosses commemorating those who had died at those points, not a very comforting sight when your bus is inching past another vehicle, and at one point, as I described above, we almost went over the side, I was hanging out of the bus trying to videotape the experience, and was thrown back by the bus lurching back onto solid ground.
The awesomeness of the road died away as we descended back to level ground and stopped in a small town for an hour for food, before setting off on the most uncomfortable and sleep deprived journey of my life. One of my travel buddies distributed out ‘natural’ sleeping pills that we took in the hopes of getting some rest before reaching town. Surprisingly the pills worked and I found myself dreaming of eating dinner with my family back home, all of a sudden the faces of my family become enraged and they all start yelling at me “hombres abajo!” (guys get down!) over and over again, I woke up to an inky darkness that is broken by the headlights of the bus that is stationary, a voice outside calling for the men to get out of the bus. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and nudge my friends to get up, not knowing what was going on and expecting the worst, we get off the bus. I turn to look and the back wheels of the bus are submerged in about 3 feet of mud, two of the bus drivers are digging them out with shovels and the third comes up to us and says “empuje” (push) I laugh and in Spanish ask him if he is joking. We line up behind the bus, mud up to our knees and push until the bus is dislodged and begins to move, unable to stop for fear of getting stuck again, and not knowing when we will stop for the washroom, we all do a sort of slow jog/take a leak manoeuvre before scrambling back onto the bus covered in mud.
Afterward pushing the metal brute out of the mud, I spend the remainder of night/morning sat straight up awake, being jolted around violently by the muddy jungle road until we finally reached the town of Rurrenabaque after about 28 hours of driving. Surrounded by looming jungles and mud streets lined with palm trees, we shouldered our packs and wander up and down the streets until we find a hostel, we collapse into our beds and sleep in the hot wetness of the midday jungle, preparing for the adventure of living in the Amazon jungle for 4 days we would soon experience.