“Whiskey.” “Claro.” Surviving hitchhiking in Yungas mountains

Me on the back of a truck
Me on the back of a truck

After the two exciting days in the Bolivian highlands I was back on paved roads. I started my day following the illusion that this would keep on until Coroico. As always, I walked out of the city. This time Oruro. On my way I passed a bus. Some people stood in front of the luggage flaps and unloaded suitcases and beside that dead pigs as if it would be the most normal thing in the world. Looked like dead pig day in Oruro. 20 minutes later I walked past a taxi loaded to the roof with dead pigs. A quite unique way of meat transport.

Hitchhiking was good, three fast rides to the police check behind the city, passing two other hitchhikers and stopping another truck that was going to my next intersection. From there I would continue on smaller roads. Satisfied I sat in the truck, lost in watching the landscape. In my head I summarized the last two days thinking about how to pack them into an article as I was suddenly ripped out of this peace by a loud bang. Totally freaked I see the truck being towed to the left. The driver has a hard time going straight. Left front tire exploded. We stop, get out and stare doubtingly at the broken tire. The driver starts to make a phone call, I help him clearing the highway of the broken tire and continue walking. Could take some time until he’s driving again. To my luck the third car stopped to take me to my intersection.

In front of me paved road. I see myself arriving at the death road at noon and leaving La Paz behind me in the evening already. I made it through some villages quite quickly but then traffic ceased. I got a lift on the loading platform of a truck. The guys suddenly turned: I had to give them a sign to not be taken into the wrong direction. Via several serpentines I ascended a mountain recognizing some dogs wondering what those guys might eat out here in the nowhere and enjoyed the panorama. After 28 minutes of walking a Nissan stopped.

Breathtaking descent through the most beautiful mountains of South America

The driver was puzzled. Again I didn’t understand a word. Somehow though I made it into the car. We started. I thought he would go to the next village or so. The road went downhill. I estimate we were at 5000+ meters altitude. I would get out at 2200. The road was … hard to describe … bombastic. Via excellently paved hairpin-bends down to Quime. We passed several buses and at some point that huge, bottomless pit opened up in front of us, descending it piece by piece with the rickety car. It was like going down to the middle earth. This Passage was absolutely amazing. But I didn’t know that the whole Yungas mountains are waiting for me. Arriving at Quime (it wasn’t even on my map) I was awaited by a marvelous small town with rich vegetation clinging to a lake giving me the feeling of being somewhere in the Alps. I was delighted with the beauty that I saw in it. We were in the beginning of the Yungas.

Abstieg nach Quime
Descend to Quime

At the end of the village we turned onto a small gravel road and stopped at a gas station. As I asked how far he was going the driver answered: “2 hours further.” Sick shit! Good lift! This was also when I realized that the small road that we took to reach the gas station was not kind of a secret path to there, but the main road for my next 400 km. I had already sensed before that there was something fishy with this route. That was it. But we went into the Yungas and excitement was endless.

Yungas is a mountain range drawn from tropical 500 meters of altitude up to the 4000+ high plains to La Paz. There is a northern and a southern Yungas, separated by a River. The road runs in principle atop of the mountains. That means at some places the side slop drops several hundred meters next to the street. The surroundings are beautifully green, all the time you have a great view, looking straight into the face of death… very hard to describe. Let’s just say it’s the most beautiful area that I crossed in all my life.

For three hours me, my driver and his Nissan cruised through the mountains. In between a police check. Bribed, of course. A little smalltalk and continuing. A granny on a market square who wanted to jump in was turned down. Some villages later another granny, hitchhiking. The driver sighed and in keeping with the motto “Well, jump up grandma” the hitchhiking-granny was loaded onto the platform. At the place where we arrived I bought as much food as i could carry for about 60 Cents and continued by walking through the city over the next mountain passes. Here I realized for the first time that I was in the middle of the jungle. Banana and orange trees next to the road inviting me to pick some sweet fruits. This, after months of sparse highlands. Months of desert and dead land. And it was warm again, I could sleep outside!!

Yungas roads
Yungas roads

Upcoming: a classic, insane night ride

For the next 2,5 hours i was hiking… with pleasure. Just a little traffic. Maybe 4 or 5 cars. At some point I located a small, deserted stone house next to the road, hidden by the bush. It was going to be my sleeping place. Writing down some vocabulary, smoking a cigarette, preparing to sleep… I made my evening toilette, prepared for sleeping. It was already dark. But then there was this car coming. Let´s try a last time. Hand stretched out … aaaand it stops. Two humans look at me. Obviously a taxi. I explain that I have no money for transport. Doesn’t seem to bother them. “Where are you going?” “There and there.” “Is that a village or a city?” “A big village.” “No idea where it is, let’s go!” And what comes now is on of those night rides for which I love hitchhiking.

First observation: The front-seat passenger is totally drunk. And how drunk he was. Not even able to sit straight on the seat, bending left and right beaten by the curves and road holes. I was picturing him puking all over the car and prepared myself to protect me from spraying puke. My first theory: he was on a village fair getting completely hammered and is now on his way home. Obligatory pit stop. Mister Wasted hat to take a shit. To much joy of everyone I had toilet paper with me. There is nothing more important (beside water maybe), if you go on a long hitchhiking trip.

We continued. “EY, Amigo, mi Amigo, Ey”, he tried to talk to me, I smiled back at him and he slipped me 30 pesos because he thought I have no money. I felt really uncomfortable with that. Oh well. Sit it out Stefan, sit it out. As long as we are rolling everything is fine. While I was still thinking about the money the mood changed suddenly. Mr. Wasted had invited me to his house, we were Amigos now. But the driver (Efrain) debated with him about that. It went as follows.

Efrain: “Look, he speaks nearly no Spanish and won’t understand anything. And you behave like mad, use bad language and are drunk as hell. What will he think of us? He comes to our country, he is well educated, went to school, university and finds you like that here.”

Drunky: ”NO NO NO; you are wrong, he’s my friend.”

Efrain: “He doesn’t understand you”

Drunky: ”We talk tomorrow! Tomorrow I talk with him!”

Next obligatory stop in another village. Filling up gasoline. Efrain walks into some house and returns with a canister and piece of a garden hose. Tap and let it run. Filling gasoline in Bolivia. I had offered Drunky a cigarette that we shared at the moment while he explained that they are very strong and that he can’t remember his name anymore (I had asked him several times before already). Efrain asked him to buy 3 portions of chicken for us but he had no more money. Because I had it. I was about to buy the chicken for all of us, but then we continued.

We finally arrived at the village of Drunky and since he had invited me at least 10 times to his place the moment of truth had arrived. The village was not sympathetic at all. As Drunky got out gathering his things I started my tactical maneuver: “Are you going to sleep here or are you going back?”, I asked Efrain. “Nono, I am going further.” “Oh, further, where to?” “Irupana.” “Hm…. well… further… hey Amigo…. he is going into the same direction as me… maybe… I better continue with him? You know, it’s closer to my goal. Don’t be mad, thank you so much for your hospitality, but you need to sleep and he’s going on… nah?”

Drunky got it after Efrain supported the conversation a little. He was not angry and waved towards his home. I changed to the front passengers seat, we went on, the mood was relief and Efrain was also glad that I hadn’t joined Drunky. “No es muchacho”, were his words. I tried to give him the 30 Pesos, get rid of this money, but he just answered I should buy something to eat for me.

Alcohol and corrupted police

That was when the night started. Next pit stop. Efrain has half a bottle of Whiskey and Coke which he mixed, assuring me that he likes to drink every now and then, but not as much as his colleague. Afterwards he told me their story. Both had been on the road since several days after selling a car in Arequipa near Chile. Cigarettes lighted, Whiskey-Coke knocked back, this is how the party-van rolls. Finally knowing where we were going – 2 hours further into my direction – was increasing my good mood. BÄM! Nightlift! I love this.

At the first village the fun suddenly found its end when Efrain stopped because a tour bus was blocking the street, parking. He switched off the lights but when I asked him if he needs a lighter for the next cigarettes he just shushed me with “Nono… psscht….policia.” Police check. Fun went serious. He waited until the bus had parked and tried to pass silently. Not enough space on the street. We had to reverse and look for another way. Of course the cops were waiting for us there. Too obvious how the Gringo Taxi tried to sneak the police control.

Efrain, Gringo…. Money. Efrain tried to bribe them but it seemed not enough for them. He came to the car and asked me for the 30 pesos that I generously donated for this good cause. “Listo”, onwards. But then some obtrusive lady approached the car window asking questions. The kind of person that have to stick their nose into everybody’s business. Some discussion. Whop, and we had a an old man and a woman with her son in the back. Efrain was obviously troubled, drove more restless and that on an hour-long detour.

So we continued on the mountain roads. We drank to silence our nerves. “Whiskey.” he pleased. “Claro.” My response. One for Efrain, one for me. At the first one he criticized that it was too much, so only small sips from then on. I felt myself forced to join him hitting the bottle, for the safety of all of us. Since the night was totally escalating I again dived into this “not giving a fuck”-feeling. After four to five Whiskeys all passengers had arrived safely at their homes and we continued in intimate togetherness. Drinking Whiskey, smoking cigarettes and passing on this dirtroad with the 300m slopes. The only problem was that neither Efrain nor I had the slightest idea where we would have to go.

And where do we sleep?

Toilet break. “Whiskey.“ “Claro.“ I was tipsy already. At some point when we switched on the lights in the car I realized that Efrain was pretty loaded already. If I could drive? Of course. Too bad I never got to ride the car. Maybe it was better that way. The car grounded on the bad road several times. Fortunately we were not able to see the abyss next to the road because of the complete darkness that surrounded us. The Whiskey was already gone and in the next village Efrain asked for the way and for upcoming police checks. We both were out of money and he instructed me what I should say in case of a control. I put away my camera, just in case, this was not supposed to be bribery. Tensed we continued our road. We were lucky, no fixed police checks, only one patrouille that never reached us.

We had a great chat and finally arrived at the said big village. We stopped, clueless. I scrounged another cigarette from Efrain. “Or shall I take you to my village?” Sounds like sleeping place. “How far is it?” “5 km.” “Claro.” The car bumped on the increasingly bad road at least 10 more times until we reached the village after 50 minutes. 5Km further…. To my surprise he stopped at the market square to let me out of the car. Story of my life. I had never been lucky with sleeping places but also I had never had a problem to keep on hitchhiking during the night. Maybe there is a connection. I gave Efrain my farewell, thanked him a lot and walked out into the darkness.

I slept in the next village on the terrace of a small communal building. In the morning a bunch of brats gathered together on the nearby road making a fuss. One girl was shouting all the time. I didn’t know what. But I thought she’s calling her friend who’s not at home and why she just couldn’t keep her gob shut. Through the whole night a way to noisy mosquito that just didn’t want to feed had terrorized me and now some kiddies were screaming for their friends. At some point I understood the word “Gringo” and realized that they were calling for me all the time. I was busted. Sit it out, Stefan. Soon the brats vanished. Packing up, jumping the fence, first car stopped for the upcoming town. Goodbye.

It was market time and I enjoyed a marvelous street food breakfast, stopped everywhere, bought something. Cake, Cheese, Empanadas and yummy stuffed potato dumplings. Found a ride out of the city. Brushing teeth. Walking onwards. Walking was definitely not exactly brilliant I figured 30 minutes after, dusty head to toe. The roads were as dry and dirty as in the Amazonian Area. Nothing stopped for me either. I should find myself walking for 4 hours straight. Always driven by curiosity what i would find behind the next mountain and how it might look there. After three hours I had emptied two liters of water. Ruthlessly the big and small buses rushed past me blowing up even more dust.

At some point I aroused a taxi driver’s pity. Same game, no money for transport… yes, jump in. Last intersection before my goal. Lets have a break. Fish for lunch, new water acquired. Continue walking. Flagging down a jeep with four Bolivians, got the ride, nearly crashed, last city before my final goal. Continue walking. Another ride with a taxi filled with two old men and a friendly driver. From where we were going it should be three hours on foot to Coroico. ‘Sounds fine’, I thought. So I will arrive for sure. Continuing walking I nearly got a ride to Coroico but they went on without me.

Fensterblick aus meinem Hostel in Coroico
Sight through my hostel window in Coroico

The most dangerous ride on the most dangerous road

While walking I thought I would rather be stopping anything that could take me a little further. Also motorbikes which I declined so far during the day. Seems legit. First one didn’t stop. Then a biker with camouflage clothes bombed around the corner. Yeah. The following is exactly the fitting end to this totally crazy tour through the Yungas.

The driver was a policeman. I should have seen that not everything was straight here as he dismounted his bike starting to talk to me while pissing onto his own motorcycle. Sometimes I am a little slow on the uptake. He wasn’t really sympathetic but I am so bad at turning down rides and don’t like to discuss with marshals. Up up! Nono not like this, I should get closer and put your arms around my belly. It was not as homoerotic as it might sound here but absolutely necessary to survive in this bad road conditions.

As we started to drive and Aris started to talk I noticed that he was focking drunk. In fact, I realized that as soon as we went uncertainly swayed towards the first car, almost bumped into it. Whenever he turned around to talk to me the motorcycle went off course. Digger, buses, jeeps,… well anything that came across us was a potential accident and to the right of the road it was dropping several hundred meters down. Fuck me, what am I doing here.

I hoped he would not take me very far. First break. “Where are you going?” “Coroico.” Fuck, he is really going to Coroico, my destination. At minimum a one-hour ride. I just thought about, how can I explain that I don’t want to continue with him… and on we go. Bumping over this bad roads, speed up, break, speed up, break. Going so fast that I almost shit myself. Deadly terror. In a way it was funny. I held tight onto him and knew, if we go down this cliffs, then we go together. Next break. He wants to make a selfie. Well, he wants me to make a selfie.

Thats how my selfie stick came into operation. I took it out of my backpack and described to Aris how I got it as a “Present” in Argentina from a driver. “Present” he understood immediately, keen-heard. “A present for me?” Bolivian police. Oh no, now he wants a present. “No no …”, I tried to appease. So we made a selfie. Riding on. Next break. He was very fixated on that present-thing. He wanted to give me his police jacket and I should give him something in return. Didn’t have anything. Sorry, bro. What, I can still have the jacket? Maybe a good present for my buddies at home, but definitely no clothing for the upcoming stages. Anyway I don’t have room for it and also I can’t wear it. So thanks for this. Oh, I should send you something when I am back in Germany? Yes, of course I can send the jacket to my dad. Well, now we are police brothers. Going further.

Polizeilift mit Frau
My police lift with his girlfriend. What a nice guy.

I can only say: Do never never ever try this at home. But I survived it. Aris made it alive to his girlfriend in Coroico. As we stopped and he parked the motorcycle the first thing he said was: “Hey, I am getting my girlfriend, you get me a beer please.” Okay. I needed that beer even more than him. My hands were heavily shaking after this experience. So I ordered two and drank with him and his girlfriend. I had spotted other Gringos so I approached them asking for a good hostel. While we spoke Aris’ bike tipped and fell onto the curb. “It’s governmental paid, so no worries.” He rushed off with his girlfriend. My hands were still shaking. I was in Coroico. Ready to hitchhike the “Death Road”.

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