My glove-encased hands are tightly gripping my rubber handlebars, as they attempt in vain to absorb the shock of the rough rock laden path underneath me. As I stand onto the pedals of the bicycle and shift my weight, I suddenly lose my balance, instinctively grabbing the brake and in turn flying head first over the handlebars. I land hard on my back, instantly feeling my skin tear as I begin to tumble uncontrollably down the rocky dirt road in front of me. Millions of thoughts fly through my mind in a matter of seconds. The first and foremost is to avoid falling off the 400m vertical edge of the most dangerous world in the world, where hundreds have lost their lives. Perhaps this was a bad first time to try downhill mountain biking was a close second.
Believe it or not, this wasn’t the craziest experience I had in Bolivia, an incredible land-locked country squished between its South American comrades. I had few expectations for Bolivia - my initial intentions were enjoying a cheap break from the more expensive Argentina and Peru. But I had some incredible experiences here, from the most dangerous road in the world, eating wonderful food, dancing in the streets at local festivals, to the beauty of the Amazon and much more in between.
Scrambling back towards the mountain, I’ve come to the realisation I’m safe from imminent death. I pick up my bicycle from the floor, leaving behind a large chunk of my pride and begin the descent to the end of the Yungas road.
The scenery was as equally breathtaking as it was frightening – the premise of falling to your death somehow gave the environment a sense of commanding respect. I was told tales of the many people who had lost their lives here, reasons ranging from drunk drivers to eerie sightings of ghosts. The dirt and rock path was gripped by the Bolivian jungle – trees, vines and foliage wrapped around the winding roads. These narrow roads made it nigh impossible for cars in opposite directions to pass; resulting in many deaths and in modern times the construction of a new and ‘safer’ road. These days there were more tourists than motorists, however you were required at times to move for trucks, cars and motorbikes.
I'm balancing on a thin, wooden boat with only the company of a few friends and hidden animals in the nearby jungle. My fingers are tightly coiled around the fishing line that is toing and froing with the gentle sways of the Amazon River before me. I’m in Rurrenabaque in the north of Bolivia, where the jungle meets the Amazon. At the end of my line is a small portion of sardine, caught by our tour guide Juan Carlos, with the intention of luring in a famous and reportedly delicious creature – the piranha.
The last few days I have cruised down the Amazon by boat, enjoying the harsh sun, cool winds and beautiful wildlife. This morning was spent swimming with the local pink dolphins, who are mostly shy but sometimes playful. The abundance of wildlife is also incredible – everything from Tucans, howler monkeys and turtles to large hamster-like marsupials that lazily stand along the riverbeds. As beautiful as the fauna is here, there are many easy ways to die. The huge black caimans that stalk the water ways are one particular way to go, or the anacondas that prefer social seclusion is another. Our guide warned us that piranhas aren’t as malicious as Hollywood portrays, but I’d rather err on the side of caution anyway. There is always the chance of Dengue fever as well as spiders and snakes. Just to clarify – I paid for this experience.
There are thousands of caimans in the vicinity, one in particular named Pepe, who the locals often feed meat scraps to. He lethargically drags his leathery four metre body to the water’s edge for feeding time. He didn’t care much for my presence next to him and carefully slid back into his murky home. Irrespectively, I took the time to relax and enjoy the task at hand before our search for anaconda’s tomorrow morning (which would turn out to be a fruitful expedition).
After a little patience and a lot of lost bait, I reeled in a fresh fist-sized specimen. The forever-grinning presence of Juan Carlos appeared, excited to add another portion to our dinner. He explained the nervous system of the fish and how after death it was still able to latch onto victims by jamming its jaw in lock. Not that I intended on testing his theory, I just want to survive the Amazon, thanks.
My face is partially submerged in a bowl of Sopa de Mani, the Bolivian special of chicken soup. I take a rest from my gluttony as I notice my main course of barbecued beef rib arriving in the hands of a child far too young to be working legally. A mouthful of fresh lemonade does wonders in relieving the heat of the local market. The food in Bolivia is definitely something else – flavoursome, unique and insanely cheap.
There is so much on offer in Bolivia. For the spice enthusiasts there is Picante de Pollo, a chicken leg smothered in chilli and lime juice. For the less adventurous, the milanesa – a slice of meat fried in egg batter. Local fruit is abundant and delicious too, with plentiful avocados, pineapples, papayas and other exotic variants. I was particularly warned about consuming vegetables or salad in Bolivia by my travel doctor, as it is mainly water and easily contaminated (who eats lettuce anyway?). In hindsight I should have listened better.
The street food culture mimics that of South East Asia – hundreds of vendors offering small plastic chairs and questionable hygiene standards. But in order to experience Bolivian culinary culture you have to brave the risks (how fitting gastronomy is only a few letters from gastroenteritis). Almost all my friends got sick in Bolivia, but unfortunately I drew the short straw and ended up in the worst situation.
I personally had such terrible food poisoning that I was in pain for a week. I tried naturally staving off the symptoms, but eventually gave in fearing I would put the rest of my time in South America at risk. I visited the local Bolivian doctors, as the gringo price for medical attention was exorbitant and way above my budget. The doctor was kind and understanding (which I cannot say his Peruvian counterpart, given the dog bite I am currently nursing, however that is another story for another time). He willingly gave me a prescription for a multitude of drugs that I had to consume daily and would see me recover in little time.
After a week or bread and boiled food (a diet to which I stuck little to) I found myself in a much healthier condition. Against all rational thought I decided to head back towards the glistening construct that caused me so much pain – the street food. Fight fire with fire, I thought to myself as I dove head first into a plate of grilled pork, squash and corn.
I never really thought I was going to die in Bolivia, but I had some close calls. Either way I’m damn sure I got the chance to both enjoy and avoid it.