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Don’t Look Down in Bolivia

On first consideration it seems surprising that people still die when cycling the Bolivia’s North Yungas Road, more eagerly referred to as El Camino de la Muerte or ‘The Death Road’. If a person were going to be cautious, I reason, surely it would be a place in which ‘Death’ is half the title. But as I sit astride my bicycle, teeth chattering in the sub-zero bite of 4700 meters above sea level – the start of this revered freewheel – I change my mind.

The name is an invitation to push the boundaries of good sense and later bath in the glory of having nearly died, but not. This occurs to me as a band of game-faced bikers are conjured from squalls of cold mist, yards away from splintered wooden crosses – memorials to the backpackers and locals who have plummeted to their death. Beside us is the long vertical drop that flanks the Death Road for most of its course – the reason for the well-deserved reputation.

The setting of the Death Road is as staggering as the premise of biking it: cut into the mountains of the Yungas, where jungle owns every bulge and whim of the land, the track twists a continuous descent for over forty miles and three and a half thousand vertical meters. The trees hide the rusted carcasses of hundreds of toppled trucks and cars. Among the cyclists who have dared, not all have reached the small town of Coroico near the finish line. In the last fourteen years, eighteen “I survived The World’s Most Dangerous Road” t-shirts have gone spare.

As gravity takes charge of my wheels an internal monologue kicks up: “DEATH road… be careful!” on repeat. A fleet of Konas and their hooting jockeys rampage past, in yellow elbow pads and helmets, and I can’t help but consider what the protective kit and their human contents would look like after a hundred meter free fall and a jungle canopy crash-landing. A van trails behind so the guides can assist in case of accident, or get a front seat view if a client flies a short cut to the finishing altitude, ET-style.

Throughout these upper reaches water patters onto the rocks from high above, only the truly courageous, skillful or imbecilic veer to avoid getting wet – I am none of the above and receive a sopping for my cowardice. After each hairy switchback another curling ribbon reveals itself, along with one clear impression – roads do not belong here.

The soundtrack of the Yungas doesn’t mesh with the chilling vista, a timid and quirky blend of squawks, buzzes and clicks attest to life that lurks in the greenery. Underneath, barely discernible, there’s another layer of sound – the trickle and gush of invisible streams. As well as the magic of the precipice, it’s exhilarating too being so enclosed in nature. At times it’s tempting to wonder at the rows of impossibly deep Vs formed from converging mountainsides, or to glance behind and search for whatever squawked or screamed, but then the inner voice shouts ‘DEATH ROAD!’, my knuckles pale, and I refocus on the track and the ever-present peril to my left.

Towards the lower reaches though I relax, my wheels spin faster and I realize another voice has supplanted the last, something like “YEAAAAAAH! I’m riding the DEATH road! WOOOOOOOOH!’ The temperature rises, clouds evaporate, multi-hued butterflies dance beneath my handlebars and fetching purple flowers and banana plantations crowd my peripheral vision. I’m soon coasting through a village towards a river, birds of prey fly low wheels overhead as Bolivia welcomes me back from the edge of reason with women festooned in bowler hats and traditional pollera skirts of shocking pink.

I’ve made it; I’m not sure about my brake pads. Some bikers down celebratory beers, others pull wheelies, but most don’t feel the need to show off any more than donning their “I survived…” t-shirts. A quick body count by a guide confirms that, this time, everyone gets one.

There’s a subset of cyclists who enjoy climbs, I’m one of them, and from the off my inner masochist wasn’t entirely happy with the prospect of spinning downhill for hours. Where’s the payback? I needed to know. Where the pain to go with the gain? Fortunately for the guilty, the Death Road has another currency – you pay for freewheeling with fear. It’s more than a fair deal.

For the vast majority El Camino de la Muerte will fail to fulfill its eponymous promise, for me at least the opposite was true. I finished the ride not just giddy with relief, but fiercely alive. They could change the name, somehow though, I don’t think it would have the same draw.

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Isla del SolAfter just a couple of days in La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, I was ready to leave the hustle-and-bustle of this vast, chaotic city and enjoy a bit of peace and quiet on nearby island, Isla del Sol. Upon arrival, I took one look at the intimidatingly steep hill that stood before me and decided that I would simply chuck my bags in the nearest lodging, for at this altitude, walking just a couple of steps uphill feels like an immense challenge. After discovering a cheap cabin within minutes, I flopped onto one of the small, rock solid beds, which was covered in dust and the odd hair while my travelling partner, Sterling, perched tentatively on the edge of the other. We exchanged nervous glances; this was a seriously foul room. Without hesitating, we walked back out so that we could enjoy the island and try and put those greasy dark hairs out of our minds.

After a painful trek to the very top, Sterling and I sat on a wooden bench with two cups of coffee we’d bought off a woman further down. She didn’t actually have any takeaway cups, so we had to take china ones and promise to return them later, leaving the keys to our cabin with her so she could guarantee we’d come back. As we sat there, gazing out over the remarkably still waters of Lake Titicaca and savouring the silence, we began to feel raindrops. It appeared Isla del Sol was not living up to its name. A little man then emerged from the middle of nowhere and asked if we realised that we were sitting outside his restaurant, which surprised us as there certainly didn’t appear to be any restaurants in sight. He then pointed at a rustic looking building just behind us, which didn’t look like it would fit more than a handful of people inside, and invited us in. Despite the fact Pablo – owner, chef and waiter all in one – prepares all the meals in this tiny restaurant without electricity or help from anyone else, he manages to create the most wonderful dishes. There is also no menu, as he simply cooks whichever fish the fishermen have brought in that day, along with a couple of pizza and pasta dishes. We were warned that our food would take a while to arrive, but with the soft light from the candles and delicious trouty smells wafting in from the kitchen, we felt truly content and didn’t mind at all. Needless to say, when it did eventually reach our table and each of us took that first bite, we agreed that even a five-hour wait would have been worth this incredible taste sensation.

After an extremely satisfying dinner, it was time to make our way back down to the bottom of the hill. This proved tricky for two reasons: firstly, we had completely forgotten that we’d left our keys in the (now closed) café where we’d bought the coffees and secondly, we’d neglected to take a light with us and the island was draped in darkness. By some miracle, we still managed to locate the café, where we stood yelling at nobody in particular until the frustrated owner came down from her room above to reopen it. Returning to our cabin was an even greater mission, as we simply could not remember for the life of us how to get there. It wasn’t until a whopping three hours later, after trying to open several incorrect doors, accidentally knocking down a wall and unintentionally aggravating a number of locals along the way, that we were at long last back in our delightful dusty chambers. Once again, I flopped onto the hair-ridden bed, turned to Sterling and commented, “Well that was quite a day, wasn’t it!” receiving nothing but soft snores in response.

About the Author:  Camilla (Milly) Day is a lively, energetic person who tries to make the most of every day. My favourite things include travelling, writing, food & wine, music, dancing and nature. I am currently working as English Content Manager for a tourism agency based in Argentina, writing articles about travel (and loving every minute of it).

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter our next Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

It may seem like a scene from the Hollywood box office to most travelers- but to myself and a handful of other wildlife spokespeople it is strange NOT to travel with animals on the plane! Even the airline and TSA personal get excited and often star struck by our furry, feathery, and sometimes scaly passengers on their flights! For the normal passenger flying with a kangaroo in the seat next to you is unheard of! But for me it is everyday life.

The most common questions:
1. Where are you going?
The usual answers are New York City, Miami, Los Angeles, Boston, Washington D.C. and sometimes even Canada and Mexico.

2. What for? 
These animals are ambassadors, representing wildlife worldwide. For example when we are heading to New York it is usually for the Today show, David Letterman, Dr. Oz, Good Morning America, the New York Times Travel Show, and many other venues and shows that provide a platform to educate people about wild things and wild places.

3. Why are they so calm?
As professional animal trainers and handlers we teach our animals one simple thing- to be comfortable with people and varieties of places. We are often asked if our animals are sedated- this question is as insulting to us as it would be to assume and ask an Olympian if he or she was on drugs in order to have done so well in the Olympic games. The answer is no- never. And nor should you drug your dog or cat for travel…it is dangerous and often life threatening to your pet.

4. Do you love your job? 
Absolutely. Yes. I get to travel with animals that most people hope to catch a glimpse of from tour buses and excursions around the globe. These ambassador animals are my family, my friends, and my travel companions. Together we are on a mission to educate the world about wildlife! We promote Eco-tourism at events like the Boston Globe Travel Show. We teach school children to love and respect the animals they share our planet with at elementary schools. We inspire people to make a difference in this world by connecting to animals that they never imagined being able to meet in person. Inspiration creates change- whether that change is as small as recycling an aluminum can or as large as protecting vital habitat for endangered species- every change makes a difference!

So the next time you see Kangaroo Lanie, Conservation Ambassadors, and a kangaroo on a plane- it’s ok to take a picture! They are used to the cellular phone paparazzi! 😉

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Keep life wild!!!