Coroico Road

It’s 10 am and we encounter construction obstructing our passage until 3 pm. “We will have to take an alternate road…the old road,” my friend concedes. “The old road!” I reply shrilly. My friend proceeds confidently in his 4-wheel, 2001 Jeep Cherokee. He reminds me that he has driven this road since childhood. “It will be fine,” he assures me. We are on Bolivia’s “World’s Most Famous Road” or “The Death Road.” It was named by the Inter-American Development Bank in 1995 for having the highest mortality rate, estimated at two to three hundred deaths per year. Now, the old road is marketed to extreme travel tourists. Thrill-seeking cyclists begin their trek in the freezing temperatures of La Cumbre in La Paz (15,400 feet/4,700 meters above sea level) and descend to the tropical tourist town of Coroico (part of the Amazon rainforest, Los Yungas) 5,000 feet/1500 meters below.
“There was no alternate route when we were growing up. As a kid, it was fun hanging out from the bus window, looking over the cliffs,” my Bolivian cousin reflects. Vehicles have changed over the years, from medium-sized Winnebagos to towering tourist buses. The experience remains the same: a single-lane road, barely the width of a bus, overlooking a precipice of 3,300 feet/1000 meters. A winding gravel road without guardrails and occasional waterfalls create a perilously slick surface, narrowing the road even more and intensifying the journey during optimally dry, sunny days. Mist, rain, fog and even avalanches create treacherous conditions, reviving my defunct Catholic faith with prayers to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. ¡Dios Mio!
The drastic change of the landscape, from snow-capped peaks to verdant mountains, is truly exhilarating and beyond compare. In truth, I wanted to relive my mother’s Coroico journey. My deceased mother was a sociable, adventurous Mexican-American woman, ready and willing to try new experiences, including marriage to a Bolivian and life in La Paz in the early ’70s. On her visit to Coroico, her anxiety of heights was tested with sharp turns marked with commemorative white crosses. She demanded the bus driver stop! I can imagine my mother’s domineering presence, a solid 5’8″ (172 cm) towering over a petite 5’4″ (162 cm) campesino driver. Like a soldier to his captain, he stopped the bus. She was left in the middle of nowhere with a baby and a toddler in tow.
Since surviving the Death Road, I have often wondered where exactly my mother stopped on the 43-mile path from La Cumbre to Coroico. Did she catch the next car to Coroico shortly after getting off the bus? How did she manage all alone with my brother and me? What were the weather conditions? I’ll never know. I can only say that travel conditions have improved with the new road. The landscape is still breathtaking, even from a car seat. I found myself with a strained neck, tilting my head backwards to capture the mountain peaks poking through the clouds.
I’m not sure how cyclists feel after their downhill Death Road excursion. I am thankful to my guardian angel and overcome with reverence for the many who have died much too soon. I also respect all the drivers who have sacrificed their lives to support their families for just a few pesos. Lastly, I have a little more patience and understanding for the Bolivian people, given the daily challenges they face on the Death Road and beyond.

cocinamaribel

Maribel invites people into a kitchen filled with unique Latin foods, chiles (ajies), and passion for the stories and tastes of Peru, Bolivia, and Mexico. She is excited to share her rich knowledge of modern and ancient food traditions with readers and eaters alike.

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