World's most dangerous road -

  The ride on Bolivia's famous "death journey" will take travelers to a world where two means for centuries have aroused interest, misunderstanding and controversy: coca and gold.

After the Cumbre pass 4800 m, the trophy (shared taxi) fell into a cloud of swirling fog. It was like a strange calm in the car, like we were stuck in a bell, which was probably the best because we were traveling on the "Camino de la Muerte" or Death Road.

The 64 km long Yungas Road leads from the high Andean city of La Paz to the subtropical Yungas valleys and the lower Amazon plains and includes a steep 3,500 m descent. Parts of the highway are only 3 m wide; there are a number of sharp bends and blind spots; and mini fountains stretch along the surrounding rock face. Safety barriers are rare - usually shrines along the road: white crosses, flower bushes, yellow photographs.

In the 1990s, so many people died in highway accidents - created by Paraguayan prisoners of war after the devastating war in Chaco (1932-35) - that the Inter-American Development Bank called them "the most dangerous road in the world."

The trophy slid slowly to crawl, and the driver leaned forward, staring at the steering wheel as if checking his eyesight before we suddenly entered the sunlight. Behind my window was an almost vertical fall from a height of 1000 m, while on the opposite side, the engine drove through and cut our sash glass. 

Just in front of them, a trio of cyclists sailed carefully through a hole in the crater: although a ring road was built around the most dangerous part, the road's terrible reputation made it a tourist attraction and attracted a steady stream of travelers who wanted to ride. below. The route is also the gateway to an invisible region with strong associations. Yungas (the "warm land" in the native language of Aymara, spoken by about 1.7 million Bolivians) is a fertile, unique, biologically diverse transition zone between the Andes and the Amazon, closely linked by two sources of interest and respect, misunderstanding and controversy: coca and gold. .

After two hours on Death Road, we landed in Coroico, which was once the center of gold mining, now a luxury resort. It is located on an emerald green slope and has a mild climate and panoramic views of the rolling hills, with good places to eat, drink and sleep. It was hard to leave Coroico, but after a day of recovering from a difficult journey, I traveled the country to learn more about how the region contributed to modern Bolivia. 

Fertile soil and abundant rainfall make the Yungas, which stretches along the eastern slopes of the Andes, an agricultural center. The area, once lined by old trade routes lined with lam caravans, was a basket of bread for the Incas and earlier empires such as the Tiwanaku. This tradition continues to this day. As I walked the century-old path to the Río Coroico, I walked through the hillside terraces planted with coffee, bananas, cassava, guava, papaya, and citrus fruits. 


There are also shrubs with slender branches, oval leaves and red legs: coca. Koka has been the center of many South American cultures for millennia, and Bolivia is one of the continent's largest producers with hundreds of square miles for harvest, two-thirds of which are in Yungas. The leaves with a high content of vitamins and minerals act as a gentle stimulant and help to compensate for altitude sickness; suppress hunger, thirst and fatigue; helps digest and even relieve pain. It has been used for 8,000 years in religious ceremonies and as a medicine, money and lubricant in society.


The Spaniards initially demonized the coca. But after the colonial authorities realized its beneficial effect on the natives, who were forced to work in the mines and plantations, they changed their hearts and commercialized the harvest. Interest in coca has grown steadily outside the continent. The first mention in English is considered to be the poem of the Londoner Abraham Cowley from 1662 Legend of Coca:

The leaves get great food,
Whose juice sucks and in the stomach branches
High hunger and long work can endure

In the 19th century, coca - and its psychoactive alkaloid, cocaine - became more popular in Europe and North America, with drinks, tonics, drugs and a variety of products. They contain Vin Mariani, a French wine with more than 200 mg / l of cocaine. The ads claim to "refresh the body and brain" and fans include Thomas Edison, Ulysses S Grant, Emile Zola and Pope Leo XIII (who even appeared on a promotional poster).

Today, cocaine is considered by many Bolivians to be a sacred plant that is regularly used by a third of the population (although cocaine is illegal). In his book Coca Yes, Cocaine No, Thomas Grisaffi writes: "[Coca] is accepted by most sectors, regions and ethnicities ... It is better to consider it a national custom, like drinking tea for the British."

Eventually, I came to the flooded Coroico River, a symbol of another source in the Yungas: gold. The so-called "ruta del oro" (Golden Trail) reaches 350 km by waterways in the region and into the nearby Amazon and has attracted seekers for centuries. Although the riverbeds, streams, and creeks proved to be rich in gold deposits, it never provided enough to satisfy the appetites of the conquerors and those who followed the hay. As a result, countless rumors of lost wealth and hidden treasures are circulating in Yungas and the surrounding region.

Many myths are associated with the Jesuits, who - by exploiting indigenous peoples - amassed great wealth in South America before they were expelled in 1767 after growing up with an extremely strong and independent mentality for them, the lack of a Spanish crown. . What happened to the treasures of the order soon became the subject of much speculation, some of which had little to do with reality.

Percy Harrison Fawcett, an eccentric British explorer who traveled extensively in South America in the early 20th century, tastes this gold rush. In his book Exploration, Fawcett tells the story of a "great treasure" that the Jesuits buried in a tunnel near the Sacambaya River, which surrounds the southern Yungas. "When they found out about his difficult expulsion ... [the Jesuits] were collecting gold in Sacambay ... and it took six months to close the tunnel," Fawcett wrote. Six Bolivian landowners who dug the tunnel and seven of the eight priests who knew the place were killed to protect secrets, he added. (Fawcett himself eventually disappeared in search of the allegedly lost city of 'Z' in the Amazon ...) Despite the lack of evidence, this form of confusing myth proved to be a remarkable force.

In addition to long stories, parts of the Yungas and the Bolivian Amazon began something like the gold rush triggered by rising gold prices after the global financial crisis of 2007-2008. Much of the mining is illegal and linked to organized crime, toxic waterways and other deforestation, according to a 2018 report by the Amazon Socio-Environmental Geo-Referenced Information Project, a coalition of civil society organizations. But there is little indication of a return to Coroica. As I hit a cup of cocaine and waited for my tube to fill the passengers on the way back to Death Road, a single glimmer of gold threw at sunset over the Andes' backyards, which slowly broke as they fell. Valley.

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