Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Carretera Transoceanica

From Cusco, Peru, my plan had always been to travel by bus to La Paz, Bolivia, there to ride the world’s most dangerous road and then a train to the Brazilian border known as the Train of Death.

Both sounded pretty tempting. But a new route bypasses the World’s Most Dangerous Road, which is now a staple of tourist mountain bikers. And in Cusco I ran into a stringy-haired British computer programmer who’d just taken the Train of Death. “It was nice, dude,” he said. “No problems at all and there were a couple of other backpackers on it.”

Which made the road to Puerto Maldonado, in the Peruvian Amazon, sound like heaven: “According to Peruvian road engineers, this is Peru’s worst road between two major cities,” warned my guidebook. “It takes two and a half days in the dry season and longer in the wet. Don’t take the trip lightly; the journey requires hardiness, self-sufficiency and loads of good luck. Fatal accidents are not uncommon.”

Expresso los Chankas didn’t seem worried. Seventeen hours if it didn’t rain; $20; we leave daily at 3 pm.

The road is the last key piece of the Carretera Transoceanica – a 2,500 kilometer highway linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans from Brazil to Peru. More importantly, though, it will tie one of the last great remaining pristine rain forests of the Amazon basin to ports on the Pacific coast. Gold. Mahogany. Uncontacted tribes. Puerto Maldonado was said to be a seething boomtown on the banks of the Madre de Dios River; only two weeks ago a researcher was shot after reporting on an illegal load of old growth mahogany.

All started well. The bus was old, but clean, and I had an aisle seat with no one next to me. And the road was newly paved in December, two lanes of smooth blacktop snaking up the Andes into a cold, largely treeless world of Llamas and smoke pouring from adobe houses with thatch roofs.

The clouds were ominous, though. And a couple hours out, as we started descending the Andes’ eastern flanks, everything changed: the pavement ended. Harsh white lightening ripped through the skies and torrential rains came pouring down. The bus filled; the air turned humid and thick. My seatmate had a three-year old on his lap who coughed and puked into a plastic bag and pissed out of the window throughout the long night. The rain fell in heavy, big drops and the driver, 32-year old Juan Luis, fought to keep us on the road. All through the night in pitch blackness we jerked and bumped and slid. We forded rivers so deep I thought we’d get swept away. We stopped, backed up, waited, inched past trucks and cliffs so close you could touch them out of the window. “It is heavy,” Luis confessed to me during a bathroom break, during which 40 people pissed on the side of the road in the rain. “And very tiring. The road is clay and very slippery.”

The journey was 20 hours of torture. But hardship brings rewards: Puerto Maldonado might be the beginning of the end of Peru’s rain forest, but I liked it the minute I stepped off the bus. It’s all jangly prosperity and dynamism; dirt and mud streets filled with motorcycles and Indian bemos, and wooden clapboard open-air restaurants dishing out thick soups, against the banks of two big khaki-colored rivers. Immigrants are pouring in from the Andes to work its timber and gold, the road is slowly improving; two concrete pilings are in place for a bridge across the Madre de Dios, which now can be crossed only by ferry.

Two hours down the Madre by longboat I found Rudolpho Munoz on one of five gold-mining dredges rafted together, hard against the banks of the fast moving river. Munoz was Bolivian, small and wiry and leprechaun-like, with green eyes and a helmet of black hair, and he’d been going after gold for 24 years, since he was 16. His boat was sun bleached wood on two hulls – two simple beds, a kitchen, outhouse and grinding, hot diesel pumping sediment from as deep as 45 feet into the riverbed up onto a king-bed-sized sluice.

Six days a week, 20 hours a day, Munoz worked the river, stopping at 4 am on Sundays until nine on Monday morning. “On a good day,” he said, scooping up a day’s sediment from a blue bucket into a rounded gold pan, “we get one gram an hour.” He swirled the mud and flicked water into the pan and pointed: a speck of gold so small I would never have noticed it. “A bad day is eight grams in 20 hours. Now, gold is 84 soles ($31) a gram; in a good week I get 120 to 140 grams.”

As big-headed and long beaked Banded Kingfishers dived and swooped overhead, I noticed the sluices sparkling with round balls of mercury. Munoz brought out a plastic jug of the toxic metal and showed how he poured it into the bucket, mixed it with the mud and squeezed it all through a cotton sieve – the water and mercury washing out into the river, leaving gold behind. From his bunk he fished out a small piece of paper wrapped around a silvery ball: five grams of gold.

Two men worked each boat and shared a cook; someone owned the mining concessions for every section of the river. “Every day is for us,” he said, “except Saturday, and that day’s gold goes to the men who own the concessions.” The engine was loud and the day humid; this was his life. “What else can I do? It is peaceful here and with my boat I can go to town, and here I make 800 soles a week instead of 800 soles a month like I would if I had a job in town. We take a risk,” he said, “and hope for buena suerta.”

When the road was finished, whenever that would be, Puerto Maldonado would grow even faster. More timber. More gold. More tourists to see the rapidly disappearing jungle and its monkeys. I liked it now; soon it would need all the luck it could get. And me, too. Heading into Brazil tomorrow, to Rio Branco and beyond.


David said...

Back in 1997 I spent a couple of weeks in Zimbabwe. We travelled around the country on the public buses. Trips lasting several hours cost about $3.50.

Anyway, at one point in what seemed like the middle of nowhere (kind of like driving through Mississippi), the bus pulled over at an intersection and let on two young, attractive blonde German women who were also seeing the country.

In this country we'd worry about strangers on the road offering rides. Over there, we worried about lions coming out of the brush. I don't know which is more likely to happen, but it goes to show just how limited the view from a bus really is.

4my said...

The "old road" to Coroico is still operational, and just as dangerous as ever. In fact, now that the new highway has reduced traffic on the old road, the cars drive much faster, and hence it has become even more dangerous!!

Most "express" buses from La Paz to Coroico take the highway, but a local bus will still travel down the death road. What a shame you didn't make the trip!! I opened your book looking for the Bolivia chapter, and I was surprised to find that you skipped the world's most dangerous road.