Hitchhiking through Bolivia may not be the brightest idea. Doing it on the death road, or Yungas Road, one of the most dangerous roads in the world is purely crazy! But this is exactly what I did one summer. I travelled the Yungas road from Yolosa to Rurrenabaque on the back of freight trucks.
My travel companion was not entirely impressed by my idea of saving money. Never mind I thought – I was paying for everything else. We had no plans and no maps, we did not even know the names of the places we were about to visit!
Yungas Road Backpacking Holiday: Hitchhiking on the Death Road
We just wanted to hit the road and go with the flow. The strip between Yolosa and Yucomo is one of the most dangerous roads in the world – the Yungas Road. Part of it is called the “Death Road” and every word of it is true. The Yungas road is no wider than 3,2 meters, unpaved and on average 100 people die on it each year. The worst accident occurred in 1983 when a truck slipped into a steep roadside gorge killing 100 people at once, instantly naming the strip Death Road.
Leaving La Paz
We left La Paz in the afternoon one sunny day. The ticket cost 10 bolivianos each, about a quid to Yolosa, 4 hours from La Paz. We waited until the last minute to buy the tickets. You get a better deal just minutes before the bus leaves. That’s because the drivers want to fill the last remaining places with passengers. The bus did not look very promising, rather like a vehicle destined for scrap but we hoped for the best. I prayed to keep driver awake as we descended over 3,000 meters from the capital to the Bolivian rainforest.
After about an hour our hearts started to beat slower as the altitude sickness was wearing off. This was the first sign of our descend to the valley of death. On the side of the death road crosses left by family members were reminders of where we were. As the bus carried on flying us down to the valley towards the Yungas road, the view was becoming ever more exotic. Lush forests carpeted the hillsides and a myriad of waterfalls showered down under the road as we crossed over bridges and drove through countless tunnels. From the arid and oxygen poor heights of La Paz we arrived in the abundance of water and fresh air!
The Hotel for the Night
We got off the bus just before sunset and made our way on foot to the next hotel along the Yungas Road which was about 2 hours walk away. The Death Road becomes very quiet after sunset as no-one dares to drive on it at night. There are no signs and railings indicating the edge of the road: it is VERY easy to fall. We reached the hotel just after the restaurant closed so we had to make do with the bread we brought with us and put ourselves away for next day’s adventure.
Stopping the First Truck
The following morning we decided to walk a couple of hours along the Yungas Road to immerse ourselves in the beauty of the countryside and to listen to the birds’ singing. The only other time I heard voices like that was when I used my computer to make funny noises when I clicked on something. Although the scenery was wonderful and the birds were singing beautifully, each time a truck passed on the death road the dust almost made us suffocate.
When we could not cope with the dust any more I waved off the first truck coming. The driver was kind enough to stop for us – first time lucky! I asked if he would take us, and he asked where to, to which I said “wherever you are going”.
He said he would takes us to a place but the truck was so noisy I did not understand its name! So we just got on the back of the truck without knowing where we were actually going. Only hours later did we find out from the other indigenous travellers with whom we shared the back of the truck that we were going to Caranavi.
Caranavi and a Tasty Lunch
It was a four hour ride on the back of the truck, the first time for my Chilean friend, the second for me. I did something barely comparable once before in Romania, although that was nothing in likeness to what we were doing in Bolivia. The Yungas road was absolutely horrendous and the truck was shaking the soul out of us both. We jumped every time it drove into a pothole or sprung on a rock – but we loved every minute of our adventure!
Our ride arrived to Caranavi at noon, just in time for lunch. The other travellers warned us to take care of ourselves in this town because there is a lot of crime and robbery. I hid my valuables to a safe place in my rucksack and looked for somewhere to eat.
In contrast to her forecast, no danger ensued – everybody seemed helpful and friendly. They sold us bread at the local rate and we had lunch in one of the cheap restaurants with the locals. I am sure they did not overcharge us because we sat at the same table with other locals and they paid the same as us. So in the end not only did they not rob us of our valuables but we were also dealt fairly and squarely.
Hitching the Second Ride – Almost to Death
After lunch we made our way to the end of town and asked truckers to take us. Unfortunately none of them wanted to as they were travelling with family members. In the end we had to walk for the second time that day. For hours only taxis passed us and we were giving up hope that we would get anywhere close to a town that day. But then we spotted a police checkpoint just when we started to contemplate taking the expensive option and get into a taxi. At each checkpoint truckers wait to be inspected and one of them here offered to take us to the next town. It almost proved to be a deadly ride for us.
By then it was raining heavily and not only our clothes got soaking wet but the road underneath the truck as well. The mud made it very slippery and dangerous to drive on but it did not seem to bother the driver. He was driving at a good 30-40 miles an hour in the deadliest hairpin turns.
His carelessness paid dividends: when a bus came unnoticed from the other direction he had to pull off to the side quickly and he lost control. The truck slipped and only our luck saved us. A big rock stopped the wheel slipping any further and we could quickly get off the back where we travelled with a load of bricks.
Saving the Truck
We spent the next two hours putting rocks in front of the wheels to stop the truck slipping any further. We begged other drivers to stop and pull us out but none wanted to help their fellow trucker. At this point we began to worry that the heavier rain would wash the truck into the ravine. But then we got lucky because just before darkness fell one big lorry stopped and pulled our vehicle to safety so we could carry on to the next check point.
There the driver told us it would be better for us if we got in a bus for the night because it can get pretty cold during the late hours. We took his advice and after dinner with him we parted and waited for a bus. The next bus came an hour later and following some haggling he promised to take us to Rurrenabaque, a jungle “resort” for foreigners heading to the Wadidi National Park. This was a slightly more comfortable bus so our hitch-hiking challenge ended in style.
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