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Bolivia – Surviving the death road and breakdown at 16000 feet

21 June, 14

“Pachamama will take care of us”, Chinu, our Bolivian guide said to us while describing the harsh terrains and altitudes that we would be experiencing in Bolivia.
“Pachamama is mother nature, the god of the earth, the one who looks after everything that nature has to offer” Chinu said passionately.
After reading lots of forums and talking to travelers in Chile, it was clear that driving from Chile to Bolivia through remote terrains, deserts, volcanoes and national parks would be suicidal if we are not accompanied by a guide.
“There are no road signs, you will reach altitudes as high as 16000 feet, you will not see any vehicles or people for hours, there are no roads, only dirt and gravel to drive on, the oxygen layer is thin, the temperature can drop down to -20 degrees Celsius in the night, if you get lost in the national park, it make take a very long time before you get any help, there are no villages for long distances, if you car breaks down, pray to Pachamama.” This was the general view of everyone we spoke to about Bolivia.

We found Chinu in one of the tour operator shops in San Pedro De Atacama, the border town in Chile very close to Bolivia and he agreed to accompany us during our drive through Bolivia.
“We will leave at 7 AM tomorrow morning, please carry food, fruits, water for at least 2 days, in case there is any emergency and we are stuck on high altitudes, at least we will have supplies with us. Also, make sure you have enough warm clothes, it is going to get very very cold” he smiled and said to us. We were excited, a bit nervous but really looking forward to Bolivia.

In the morning, Chinu joined us at the hotel and we headed towards the border. After completing the border

At the Bolivian Border Post
At the Bolivian Border Post

formalities, we finally entered Bolivia. There was a dramatic change in the landscape. How does it happen? How does nature know that it has to start looking completely different on the other side of the border? The brown sand and desert of Chile was replaced by snowy mountains and frozen lakes in Bolivia. We had hardly driven 30 minutes and were already driving on frozen tarmac, with walls of snow on either side of the road. The altitude continued increasing and after 1 hour we were above 13000 feet.
“We will stay above 13000 feet for the next few days. You will get used to it.” Chinu said. We were driving through the “Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve” which is famous for erupting volcanoes, hot springs, geysers, lakes, mountains and its endemic species of flamingos in particular. As we continued driving through the reserve, we realised the seriousness of the warnings given to us by other travellers. The roads were absolutely not existent. We were slowed to a speed of 20 km/hr. We were driving through very bumpy terrain of mud, gravel and stones.
“Ladakh, Mana Pass, Tibet…this place has it all.” Sanjay remarked. But the majestic beauty, the landscapes, the white, turquoise blue lagoon and red lagoons left us spellbound.
“Ladakh has one Pangong Lake, this place has a Pangong Lake at every corner!” I commented. I had never seen water bodies as beautiful as I was seeing now.

At the Geysers in Bolivia above 13000 feet
At the Geysers in Bolivia above 13000 feet

Driving further, we reached a point where I could see smoke coming out in full force from under the ground.
“Whats’ that?” I asked Chinu
“Those are geysers created by geothermal activity, where you can find bubbling mud pools, a near-constant stream of steam erupting from under the ground.” Chinu explained. I had never seen a sight like that in my life. We were above 15000 feet, it was freezing cold, but walking close to the geysers, we felt warm. The steam erupting from under the ground was so hot that standing even a couple of feet away from it could make you sweat. The smell of sulphur boiling underground was getting to us and we had to carry on after a few minutes.

We continued driving through the Reserve, our progress was slow because every turn was opening up a new landscape and

Eduardo National Park
Eduardo National Park

we couldn’t help but stop to click pictures. The result was that the tourist vehicles that had started from the border with us in the morning had all gone past us and had safely reached their destinations before dark. Driving in the dark through this national park could be very risky and even dangerous. The beautiful landscapes, the lovely lagoons, the volcanoes, nature in all its glory; it can all turn into a living nightmare in a moment if someone falls sick, if you lose your way or if your car breaks down. The same landscapes can start looking intimidating. Unfortunately, In our case, it was already dark, we were delayed in reaching the village where we had to spend the night and we found ourselves isolated in the massive reserve. Under a bright starry sky, Chinu was focusing hard to keep us on track and arrive at the village as soon as we could. Our progress was still slow because the road conditions were extremely bad. I was on the driver’s seat and was struggling to keep the car in a straight line because we were driving in the dark on a very bumpy mud, snowy and gravel surface.
The worst happened. The car stopped. The nightmare came true. In a moment.
As I was trying to keep the car under control on the bumps, suddenly, everything went blank. All the lights in the car turned off. The entire onboard computer display went off and the car came to a halt. I turned the ignition a few times but the car wouldn’t start. A small trickle of sweat went down my temple.
“I’m sure it’s nothing, let’s open the bonnet and take a look” Sanjay said.
We opened our doors and walked out in freezing temperature in the Bolivian cold desert. We had no idea how far the village was, according to Chinu, it was only a few km away. We opened the bonnet, took a look at the various parts, couldn’t see anything abnormal, so we closed it.
“We can either walk to the next village leaving the car here or wait and hope and pray that some car will appear and rescue us” I said.

Driving through Eduardo NP
Driving through Eduardo NP

“Buddy, have faith in Pachamama, mother nature always looks out for its children. If Nature wants us to complete our journey, it will move mountains to give us a way” Sanjay was giving us his pep talk. It always works for me. His words are always encouraging and the way he explains it, you would think it is all very logical. In most cases, it actually is. In this case, it absolutely was, why? because we saw headlights. We saw headlights approaching us from a near distance!
“Look! Look! Headlights! Someone is coming in our direction!” I shouted in excitement. We all were on alert and ready to signal the car to stop. In a few minutes, the car came towards us, saw us and stopped. Chinu spoke to the local villager driving the mini truck and requested him to tow our vehicle back to the village.
“He has agreed, the village is only 1 km away, I hope you have a towing rope?” Chinu asked us.
“Yes, of course we do” Sanjay replied. We quickly connected the 2 cars using our towing rope and were slowly pulled by the lead vehicle into the village which was only a few minutes away. He took us to a small guest house and helped us park our vehicle in the compound.
We were lucky, we were very lucky. While driving through the reserve, we hadn’t seen any vehicle for hours, therefore seeing a vehicle after dark was out of the question. 15 minutes is all it took! 15 minutes and a car rescued us. Sanjay was right, if nature wants to support us, it will move mountains too.
“Pachamama saved us tonight” Chinu smiled and said.

A local mechanic at the guest house took a look but couldn’t fix the car. He told us that we will have to take the

Cold but happy in Villa Mar village
Cold but happy in Villa Mar village

vehicle to Uyuni, the next big town where we could find a suitable mechanic. Uyuni was 4 hours away from Villa Mar, the village in which we had towed our car.
“Let’s worry about how to get to Uyuni tomorrow. For now, we are all tired, let’s eat and sleep” Chinu said.
We made our boil a bag food in the guest house kitchen, went to our freezing room and got under 5 blankets each. We were still wearing our sweaters, jackets, jeans, hoods, socks and shoes. The temperature had dropped to -10 degrees Celsius and there was no heating available. Exhaustion took over and soon all of us slept. Before sleeping, I said a silent prayer to Pachamama to look out for us.

Next morning, after all of us woke up, we were thinking of options on how to get the car fixed. Sanjay wanted to call his mechanic friend in India and see if we could fix the car by receiving instructions on the phone. Unfortunately, there were no signals on our phones so that option was ruled out. The guest house owners told us about a nicer hotel nearby where a satellite phone is available. We quickly walked to the hotel but the staff there told us that even their satellite phone is out of order. We walked back to our guest house feeling disappointed. Chinu said that he will try to ask around and see if there could be any other options. He returned after 30 minutes.
“I have found a truck. We are so lucky. There is a truck which occasionally visits this village to unload some local produce, fortunately today is one of those days! That truck will leave in a few hours for Uyuni and the driver has agreed to take your vehicle on it” Pachamama is with us, don’t worry, it will all be taken care of now! He smiled and said.

Sitting in a truck with Forrest
Sitting in a truck with Forrest

Unbelievable. Second time lucky. Chances of finding a truck in a tiny village in the middle of the reserve that had agreed to take us and our vehicle to Uyuni on the same day was nothing less than a miracle for us. With the help of some villagers, we pushed and towed the car to a small, makeshift hill which was almost at the same height as the ramp of the truck. We kept our vehicle ready on the makeshift ramp and after an hour the truck arrived. It reversed enough to touch the edge of the ramp to the hill. We slowly pushed the car onto the ramp and rolled it fully into the truck. Done. All of us sat inside our vehicle which was inside the truck. The 4 hour journey to Uyuni felt very weird. I was sitting in the drivers’ seat of our car, we were moving fast, but I was not driving. We arrived in Uyuni by evening, rolled out the car from the truck again on a makeshift ramp, towed it to a local mechanic and crossed our fingers. When the mechanic appeared from out of his garage to look at our vehicle, I think we all saw god in him. I think he had spent 3 minutes on the car, after which he tried the ignition and the car started.
“The relay had gone, I have changed it, nothing major, your car is fine now” he said very casually. He had no idea what he had accomplished. Third time lucky.
We thanked the mechanic, felt elated seeing our vehicle back to life and drove away from the garage.
Next day, we were once again full of energy and were ready to visit one of the most exciting region of Bolivia. The Uyni Salt Flats. A half an hour drive from Uyuni, we reached the Salt Flats of Uyuni. 10000 sq km of nothing but pure white expanse in all directions. We entered the Salt Flats and after a few km, there was nothing else around us. It was easy to get lost but we had Chinu to guide us. We drove fast, we didn’t have to worry about lanes, we could turn the wheel in any direction we liked. It was like a playground, a huge 10000 sq km play ground. Salt Flats looked like a different planet, it was surreal, there was nothing usual or regular about it and it is one place that cannot be missed for anyone who goes to Boliva.

After we had our fill of driving on the Salt Flats, we started driving towards La Paz, one of the largest cities in

Uyuni Salt Flats
Uyuni Salt Flats

Bolivia. The roads had improved, the altitude was still above 13000 feet but we were accustomed to it by now. We stopped for fuelling on the way where we were in for a rude shock. The price of diesel was 3.7 Bolivians per litre which is close to Rs 37. But we were told that for foreigners, the price of the same diesel was 9.24 per litre! That is 3 times more! We argued, left the fuel station and tried a few more fuel pumps but they all said the same thing. In fact, some of them even refused to give us fuel. Other said that we will have to pay 3 times as it was a government order. We had to give in and pay what they demanded. We were cruising on tarmac once again and were soaking in the fresh air, staring at the gorgeous Bolivian landscapes when another disaster happened. While driving on the highway, we found a small river bed in front of us. A few cars had crossed the river and it didn’t look so deep. I was on the driver’s seat and slowly I started driving on the river bed.

Car being pulled out by a tractor
Car being pulled out by a tractor

“Don’t go towards the left, keep straight, on the left, the mud seems soft” Chinu warned me. But it was too late. I had swerved to the left thinking that it was hard ground and the water was shallow on that side. I was wrong, Chinu was right. The mud was soft, the ground gave in to the weight of the vehicle and our car got stuck. I tried to give a bit of acceleration to pull the car out but soon the tires started spinning and went deeper into the mud. The car was now tilted 30 degrees on the left and I feared that if we kept trying to push it out, it might sink even more.
“I told you Tushar, don’t go left, go straight, I wish you had listened man!” Chinu said feeling frustrated. I was embarrassed, I was very embarrassed. I was creating blunders every day. Because of me, Prasad lost his camera, when our car broke down in the desert at night, I was the one driving, and now, because I didn’t listen to Chinu, we were once again stuck. I was putting our journey into jeopardy every day, I was being careless, rash, irresponsible. I broke down. My eyes were wet, I tried fighting the tears, it was all getting too much. I was beginning to lose confidence in myself. I went in a corner away from everyone and just stood. Sanjay and Prasad gave me time to recover and were very supportive. I composed myself, returned and they were both smiling at me.
“It’s nothing, anyone could have got stuck here. It’s not your fault buddy” Sanjay said in his usual supportive tone. We focused on getting the car out now. A few passersby stopped and tried to help. We all used our muscle power to push the car out but it wouldn’t budge.
“We need to call a truck or a tractor, no other option” Sanjay concluded
We requested one of the villager’s to go fetch a tractor and he quickly left on his bike. He returned after 10 minutes with a tractor following him.
“Unbelievable, was that tractor waiting for us? It’s like, it was on stand by to rescue us!” I said
“Pachamama Tushar! Pachamama.” Is all Chinu said. The tractor pulled out the car from the mud effortlessly. We still had to do the river crossing and I gave the keys to Sanjay.
“You are going to make us cross this river, not me” he said while handing the keys back to me. The support, the confidence, the positive attitude, the friendship and love that we share cannot be described. Seeing Sanjay and Prasad’s confidence in me made me feel confident once again and I was able to cross the river without any problems.

The journey since was smooth, I was mostly quiet but still relived and hoping that the worst was behind us. We reached

Death Road
Death Road

La Paz by evening, found a hotel and crashed in bed. The following morning was going to be another very exciting day for us. While doing research on Bolivia, I had found that Bolivia is home to the “World’s Most Dangerous Road” called the “Death Road”. One estimate is that 200 to 300 travellers are killed yearly along the road. The road includes cross markings on many of the spots where vehicles have fallen. The largely single-lane road has no guard rails and most of the road is the width of a single vehicle, about 3.2 metres (10 ft).
We reached the starting point of the Death Road and stopped. “Death Road”, a big yellow sign board stared at us as if warning us that “enter at your own risk”. About 100 metres away, we could see the narrow, steep, gravel road covered with fog and clouds moving slowly over it towards the valley. Because of the clouds and fog, it seemed like the road is leading to nowhere and it seemed to disappear into the unknown after a few hundred metres.
“It seems like a perfect setting for filming a horror movie. Are we really going to drive on that road?” I said feeling excited but nervous
“Hmm, let’s take a few pics near the sign board and go back!” Sanjay laughed
We were excited, we were thrilled, we were feeling the adrenalin and we couldn’t wait to hit the Death Road. Sanjay and I first walked towards the Death Road and payed our respects by bowing down and touching our foreheads on the road.

At the starting point of Death Road
At the starting point of Death Road

“Please take care of us and let us come back safely” is what we prayed. We went back to the car, started the ignition and rolled. We slowly entered the Death Road and immediately felt the car sliding down. We had entered the Death Road from the top which was at al altitude of around 10000 feet. The road would continue descending for close to 68 km and end at an altitude of around 3000 feet. Because we were driving on gravel, getting a hold on the car was difficult and I had to keep a tight grip on the wheel and drive in low gear. The road was very narrow, there was no space for another car to pass. If a car would approach from the opposite direction, either us or that vehicle will have to somehow find a suitable spot to let the other car pass by. On our left was a very steep valley, there were no guard rails and it was easy to see how cars would misjudge the width of the road and fall into the valley. We saw a lot of cross markings, small memorials at various spots on the Death Road. We carried on driving for half the length of the Death Road and then took a U-turn to come back. Fortunately, we were able to drive back from the Death Road onto the highway without any incident. It was dangerous, it was risky, it was more difficult than any other drive we have ever done, it was behind us now. We had accomplished and experienced driving on the Worlds’ Most Dangerous Road! We thanked Pachamama, congratulated each other and drove back towards La Paz

Bolivia has been one of the most memorable journeys of my life. It is a tough terrain, but warm people, it has high altitudes but a peaceful environment where you feel close to nature. In spite of all the hardships, we felt that Bolivia is god’s own country. People are descendents of the Incas, they are proud of their heritage, they love their country, and even though Bolivia seemed more deprived than any other South American country, the people seemed happy and content. Will I visit Bolivia again? Absolutely.

Eduardo National Park, Lagoons, Snowy Mountains and Volcanos, Salt Flats, Villa Mar, Chinu and the Death Road will always keep calling me back.

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