Travel Writing Award Entry

By Madeline Petrillo

The road from La Paz to Coroico is officially the most dangerous road in the world.  On departure, our mini-bus was already two people, a goat and three chickens over its official capacity and bore the bumps and bruises of previous trips along the camino de la muerte (death road). After forty five minutes the mini-bus ground to a halt.  The driver took out a bottle in the shape of the Virgin Mary and started sprinkling Holy Water over all the passengers who quickly joined his supplications.  For the next three hours, the journey followed a fifty mile ‘pass’ that is responsible for between two and three hundred deaths per year.

The white-knuckle ride climbs to an altitude sickness-inducing height of almost five thousand metres before hurtling three thousand metres down through the Cordillera Real into the Bolivian rainforest.  From the peak of the Andes, the Cordillera looked impassable and I wondered why I had consciously decided to risk my life to visit a small hill town in the Yungas.

As the mini-bus juddered along, the road gradually narrowed until it was just about wide enough for one vehicle.  Meeting oncoming cars, buses and lorries meant teetering dangerously on the sheer cliff edge or blindly reversing back to a marginally wider section of road. My fellow passengers offered little reassurance.  They frequently beseeched the Goddess Pachamama for a safe journey, suggesting they were depending on divine intervention rather than the expertise of our driver, Fede, to deliver us to our destination.  Fede also blessed himself with worrying regularity.  That was when he was not scrabbling around the floor of the mini-bus for the key that kept falling from the ignition.  I joined the mumbling of prayers.

The ‘Yungas’ road (to give it its official name) curves through the mountains creating numerous blind bends.  There are no guardrails.  There was some comfort to be taken in the knowledge that I was probably less likely to perish than the traffic control men who stood on the hairpin bends holding red or green paddles to warn of vehicles approaching from the opposite direction. Unfortunately, their judgement was often impaired by the amount of coca leaves they had been chewing.  Travellers throw food and money from their vehicles as a reward when they do a good job and jeer and curse if they get it wrong.  Fede told me that he makes the trip every day and that, on average, a vehicle slips off into the abyss every two weeks.  To prove his point, he balanced the mini-bus on the edge of a dizzying precipice.  I inched as far as possible to the opposite side of the bus to counter the gravitational pull of the gorge.  All the other passengers strained to look over.  Fede beckoned me to see for myself the bus that had plummeted from the road just two days earlier.

Taking great risks can often reap great reward and, should you be brave enough to open your eyes, the majestic peaks of the Cordillera Real through which the road twists are a wondrous distraction from the perilous journey.  As the high Andes fall away into the Amazon basin, each hazardous turn reveals new vistas of the vertiginous, forested mountainsides of the Yungas, punctured by precipitous waterfalls and yawning cloud-filled chasms. 

Should you make it to Coroico, the elation of having survived the most dangerous road in the world is matched by the joy of arriving at the most beautiful place in the world.  Coroico is perched on the flank of Mount Uchumachi.  The area is a playground for hiking and Coroico is an idyllic base for treks in the Yungas and the Cordillera Real. The centre of town is a small plaza.  Roads lead off from each corner of the square where a few hotels and restaurants cater to the middle class pacenas (citizens of La Paz) who visit on the weekends.  Four hundred metres up from the east of the plaza is Hotel Esmeralda, the perfect place to sip a steadying chicha to calm the nerves.  The panorama over the Yungas from the pool and terrace area is astonishing.  The tranquillity of the place is only occasionally interrupted by the hotel’s over-friendly pet parrot.

Coroico is a difficult place to leave – and not only because of the perilous road out.  It is said that true adventure is to be found in the journey not the destination and this is never more aptly applied to a place you have to risk your life to get to.  In this case, both the journey and the destination were worth it.