Surviving The Death Roads of Bolivia
Originally published in our Apr/May 2012 issue
Words & Photos: Jonathan Mehring
We bounced over rough gravel in the back of the minibus. There was not much room to shift around in the seat. We were packed in so tightly that we were continually jostled into each other as the wheels rolled over large gravel, small gullies and slipped in patches of mud. Twelve of us were crammed into a nine-seat bus, and as we looked out the window, beyond a few sprigs of green rising up from the edge of the road, all we could see was white. We were totally engulfed in clouds. Every few minutes it would clear enough for us to see that the road was on a precipice above a gorge thousands of feet deep. Our driver laughed with his navigator as the bus lurched dangerously in the direction of the drop. We all held our breath. The van kicked and bucked forward as a few bits of gravel drifted off into space and disappeared below us. We were on the Death Road, the world's most dangerous road, which used to average more than 300 deaths per year before a safer, alternate route was built and became the main choice for travel.
We climbed higher into the mountains. Soon we stopped at the top of a very long, anxiety-producing climb. Our driver proudly informed us that his company had only had 14 deaths since its establishment in 2001. We exited the van and mounted our bikes. Ironically, this felt much safer. A four-hour downhill ride awaited us. We geared up in dirt-bike suits and prepared for the descent. Before long, the 10-foot-wide gravel path was speeding by under our wheels. We hugged the inside of curves like the thousand-foot cliffs didn't exist. Gravel flew off the drop as we cut inside and out. Our impending doom was hidden by the soft white of clouds surrounding us. Confidence was high, and our cheers reflected that. All warnings forgotten, we were going for speed. Down, around the curves, faster and faster.
We suddenly burst through the white barrier, and the green Andes Mountains spread out below us for miles. This was the first time we really saw how close to death we were. Most of us immediately started hugging the wall while still hauling ass. By concentrating on staying in the lane, it was easy to forget about the terrifying drop to our left. After a few minutes, everyone was back up to speed and rear-break skidding around each turn. Every blind curve was a gamble as cars could very likely be coming up the one-lane-wide mountain pass. Fortunately there were no fatalities. Bolivia welcomed us.
Actually, it welcomed all of us except Steve. On the long drive to the downhill part of the Death Road, we stopped at a group of street stalls for snacks and drinks. A shabby little hut with scrap metal siding and a dirt floor might not seem like a good place to have a street meat sausage to most people, but let me tell you, we were hungry. There were shelves of cookies, crackers, candy bars and sodas that all looked like they had been there for at least a year. They were completely faded and covered in dust and who knows what else. Axle grease stained the walls, and a dirty sun-weathered woman with scraggly salt-and-pepper hair stood there insistently asking us what we would like. Dylan, Steve and I all looked longingly at the sausages on display, which smelled amazing. We stood there with trucks driving by six feet away belching black exhaust in our general direction, just salivating over these bright-red morsels. After a few minutes, we convinced each other that something that smelled so good couldn't be bad for your stomach. Each of us ordered a sandwich and watched as the woman proceeded to cut the links in half and fry them in a pan in front of us. I relaxed a bit. They had to be fine now. She slapped them onto pieces of bread and prepared to add some raw onions but Dylan and I declined. Steve accepted just a few onions, and we proceeded to enjoy our meal. The others looked at us in horror.
"What are you guys doing? Don't eat street meat from THERE!"
"Don't judge a book by its cover," I responded. "Some of the best food in third-world countries is found at the street stalls."
By the end of our bike ride, Steve was looking a little pekid. "Uh oh, guys," he said, "I don't think I should have got mine with onions." Dylan and I swallowed hard and looked at each other with worried-for-Steve-but-relieved-that-we-hadn't-eaten-onions looks. I checked in with myself mentally: Yes my stomach feels fine. I think I'm in the clear.
Our minibus picked us up and we headed back to La Paz as night fell on the mountains. The drive was rough and bouncy. We were all drinking beer and singing along with songs on Jack's iPod and getting kind of ridiculous when I looked over at Steve. He was curled up in the back corner with all his warm clothes on, hood pulled down over his face and rocking from side to side. It wasn't looking good. At our first rest stop, he bolted out of the van and projectile vomited off the side of the hill next to the road. He was puking for at least 10 minutes, which made us realize he was really sick. Finally, we all got back in the van and headed for the sanctity of our host Milton's house. Steve was bedridden for several days just sweating, hot, cold, puking, shitting the whole nine. It became clear that his condition was not going to go away by itself, so on the third or forth day Milton made him go to the hospital to get tested for bacterial infections. A few hours later he returned with Steve's medicine and test results. "Congratulations, Steve! You have salmonella!" he exclaimed as he came into the room. Steve was soon on the way to recovery but his infection had spread so much that he was unable to skate for almost the entire trip.
La Paz is the world's highest capital. Located in the Andes Mountains at 11,000 feet, the air is extremely thin. Most people take a week or more to acclimate to the point where they can walk a normal distance without getting completely winded. This is probably why no one has ever taken a skate tour there.
A New York transplant, my skate friend, Milton, recently moved back home to La Paz and invited us to come stay with him downtown and skate the unskated city. Together with videographer Joe Bouillot, we set up a trip consisting of Dylan Rieder, Bobby Worrest, Fred Gall, Jack Sabback, Nestor Judkins, Kevin Terpening, and Steve Forstner. We arrived at the airport around 6 a.m. and Milton's friend, Leo, picked us up in an old Toyota Corolla hatchback blasting death metal. Some of us squeezed into the back seat with Milton and a couple other skaters while the rest got into a minibus and headed down the steep hills of La Paz into the center city. This was quite the welcoming party.
Upon arrival, it didn't seem particularly hard to breathe, but an hour later we were all wheezing our lungs out in the house. Milton's maid, Betsa, saved us from otherwise certain doom. It's common for the middle class in Bolivia to have a live-in maid, and Betsa was amazing. She brought us all much-needed coca tea, made from the same plant used to produce cocaine but without the same effects. It's actually totally customary to have several cups a day, like drinking coffee, and it helps your body fend off the altitude sickness. At first it was necessary to have five or six cups a day just to keep standing up. I went to buy bottled water at the nearest deli, which was about three blocks away, two blocks over and one intimidating block downhill. By the time I returned an hour later, I was stepping one foot in front of the other so slowly I wasn't sure I'd make it. Once inside, I had to lie down for almost 20 minutes. At this point, it seemed like we'd made a mistake. Skating was not going to be easy here, even after several days of acclimating.
Fortunately, there were some other things to do while we waited. We rented a minibus and headed to Tiahuanaco. These ancient ruins from a civilization thousands of years before the Inca or the Spanish conquistadors, were created by moving and cutting stone in perfectly straight lines and right angles without the use of metal tools, knowledge of the wheel or any written language. Google "Tiahuanaco" for more info and a plethora of conspiracy theories.
Juan, our van driver, must have thought we were crazy. A well-dressed, church-going man in his 40s, he was used to driving elementary kids back and forth to school most of the time. Then he got our crew: twelve 20-30-year-old skaters drinking all day and jumping around hurting themselves on bits of wood and cursing loudly. He was quite confused for the first few days as to what we were doing in La Paz and why we were there. Especially when Milton told him to look for spots randomly. "Hey, let's check out this neighborhood and just drive around." Eventually, he got the hang of it.
A couple weeks into the trip, and after some good skating had gone down, we decided to head to Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. It sits on the Andean Plateau at around 12,000 feet above sea level. There we stayed the night on Isla Del Sol (the Island of the Sun). This was a small island in the lake where the Aymari people (Tiahuanaca descenda nts) live a very simple and traditional lifestyle that has hardly changed over the centuries. They live off farming and tourism for the most part. Because of the thin atmosphere and lack of streetlights, the stars look brighter than most places on the planet. We took a boat to the island, found a hostel to stay in, and headed up the hillside to take photos and get hippie as fuck, basically.
In the morning, we hiked the length of the island and swam in the ice-cold water. Our last meal before heading back to La Paz was at some random place where the waiter and cook were one in the same. Since Steve was only food poisoning casualty so far, we were feeling pretty confident—not to mention the fact that we were all starving. We ate and I had some luke-warm bite of veggie something. It was one of those mouthfuls you instinctively want spit out but don't want to be rude or gross or wasteful so you swallow it. And I immediately wished I hadn't.
I tried to put it out of my mind as we headed back to the house, but the next day I was screwed. I was super nauseous and shaky but I hadn't puked or crapped my brains out yet. I wasn't as bad as Steve had been but I definitely did not feel normal. It would have been better to stay in bed, but Steve was back on the board and wanted to try a trick at a spot we had seen. He hadn't been able to skate the whole time and there was no way I was going to let him down. We all piled into the van, and I sat near the door. Joe was right in front of me and had direct access to the sliding door handle. He kept asking me if I was going to puke. I told him I'd let him know and not to worry—I'd never puked on anyone before. I must have looked pretty bad because everyone in the van kept asking me if I was OK. After several minutes of speed bumps, truck exhaust and concerned friends it suddenly became too much. Everyone yelled in unison, "He's gonna puke! He's gonna puke!"
The van slowed and Joe speedily slid the door open. Before we'd even come to a stop, I was out on the street franticly looking for a corner to puke in. Everything began to fade in and out and I stumbled through people on the sidewalk to some random stoop where I collapsed and started dry heaving. Nothing was coming up and somehow I started hyperventilating and sobbing simultaneously. I had absolutely no control of my body at that point, just lying in the dust wishing I could puke and shaking with hot/cold sweat. After a few excruciating minutes, I was able to hobble back to the van where Milton had our driver take me to the Red Cross. We went inside and the rest of the crew went skating. I was hooked up to an I.V. and oxygen mask and started to feel much better. My test results also came back as salmonella. Fortunately, I had caught it very early and a day or two later was able to function normally.
La Paz was a typically rugged South American city but had a good number of spots to offer. The whole place is in a massive valley, and the hills put San Francisco to shame. Despite the altitude sickness, which I don't think we ever fully got over, a lot of good skating went down. It's one of the most photogenic places I've been. Milton's house was definitely what kept us sane while dealing with lack of atmosphere. Betsa made us home-cooked meals and coca tea and cleaned up after our late nights. After about five days we were able to get out and skate properly. Mornings started with a warm up sesh on Milton's quarterpipe, followed with the skatepark in the afternoon street skating until dark.
Food poisoning aside, Bolivia was an amazing place.