La Ruta de la Muerte: aka The most dangerous road in the world
10 February 2017
As Lenin and I were preparing to leave Will’s house in Mocoa, he told us about this place that’s just a bus ride away and has a very nice lake. We got a late start as it was, but Will said we could get there in three hours, eat lunch and maybe swim in the lake before coming back or spending a night.
We left our bikes at Will’s house since we planned to return before he had to clean out his place, and all we brought was a backpack with a few extra layers to keep warm. We were really hungry, so decided to have lunch before leaving. We had set a $30,000 pesos daily budget for ourselves, and the bus to Sibundoy cost $30,000 per person, so we tried to hitchhike first. Eventually, a truck pulled over and told us that we could come for the ride for $15,000 altogether. We accepted.
The road between Mocoa and Sibundoy is known as the most dangerous road in the world. This is mainly because of the high risk of landslides, and the high number of people who have died on the road while driving. Along the road were signs warning of the landslides in every possible way you could describe a landslide, including “piedras caídos”, “zona geológicamente inestable”, “derrumbes”, “deslizamientos” and even “avalanches”, just in case you didn’t understand one of them. There were no other roads to turn off of this narrow winding road that we were on, and no houses or roadside attractions, but the signs for landslides frequently dotted the long road, as if people would be coming onto the road anew and not know about the hazards, or just in case people forgot and started to feel too comfortable. There were several sections where we crossed waterfalls, water falling onto the rocky road from a sheer mountain wall on one side and rapidly passing underneath us to fall off the cliff on the other side of the road.
The truck we were in was traveling with another truck that had two drivers in it, and both trucks were empty in the back. Together, we made three stops in total. One to pick fruit from a tree on the side of the road, the second to light a candle at a Virgin Mary statue on one of the ridges, and a third for coffee and snacks around the midpoint. After the last stop, one of the drivers from the other truck switched spots with our driver so he could rest. Lenin, who was sitting next to him, didn’t notice this switch until we were well into the second half of the ride.
It was dark when the two trucks pulled into the town before Sibundoy to load up with cal, or lime. This agricultural product is used to clean the coca leaves in cocaine production. While loading both trucks, our original driver confessed he had forgotten we were in the other truck. Loading took maybe half an hour, and then our original driver brought us the rest of the way to Sibundoy.
The drive that we thought would only take 3 hours took more than 7 hours, and we learned that the town was still almost an hour short of reaching the lake that Will had told us about. We had contact info for Cabunga, a WarmShowers host in town, so we decided to try to stay with him and see the town in the morning.
Driving in Cartagena (and Colombia in General)
One common theme in all of these densely populated Colombian cities is heavy traffic and noxious fumes. The traffic in Cartagena in particular seemed to always be at a standstill within the small historical center of the walled city. The roads are narrow, and sidewalks are insufficient in width for the amount of foot traffic they receive. Within the Centro Histórico, bicycling is absolutely the best mode of transport. I cannot imagine having to navigate a car there (and having to sit in it for countless hours while breathing in those fumes over the course of a week).
Driving in Colombia has been quite an experience. All of the times I’ve ridden in the car with my dad didn’t even come close to preparing me for the style of driving that people are accustomed to here. It makes me wonder where these people learned to drive and leaves me astounded that we haven’t witnessed any serious crashes so far.
From the taxi and bus drivers to the police, the motorcycles and our own personal host in Cartagena, nobody hesitates to cross into oncoming traffic lanes in order to pass other drivers, even when oncoming traffic is imminent. Our host, Miguel, even crossed into the oncoming lane to pass cops and buses. I’ve learned that as long as there is a bit of space in front of the vehicle, the driver will continue to accelerate, probably to avoid another car coming to cut them off. If there isn’t much traffic on a road, it doesn’t matter how twisty and narrow or hilly it is – the drive will be fast. However, in the city, there is never not much traffic. It always smells like diesel and gasoline exhaust, and the fumes are sometimes intolerable. The only vehicle where the seat belts were actually in working order was the tuktuk we took up a long, steep, unpaved road from San Jeronimo up to the Finca where we stayed in the mountains for a few days.
Whenever I’m in a moving vehicle on the road in Colombia, I have to relax and tell myself that these people know what they’re doing. Besides, I have little to no control over the situation, so if I want to get somewhere I have to trust the drivers with my life.
In Cartagena, I had the great fortune to try my hand at driving myself. Miguel was driving us back from the beach after a tiring few hours of kitesurfing. Traffic was moving more slowly than usual, and Miguel suddenly asks me if I know how to drive. I’m sitting in the back seat with Hannah, a German who is also staying at his AirBnB rental, and Dallas is in the passenger seat. Miguel suspects there is a police checkpoint up ahead, which is slowing everything down. He hadn’t had so much to drink that he couldn’t drive, but he didn’t want to risk getting checked by the cops. I was the only one who hadn’t had any beer, so Miguel pulled over so we could all switch positions.
Miguel has a small Kia Picanto that I had never seen before. It’s very cute and perfect for driving in a congested city (not counting the motos and bicycles). I hadn’t driven a manual transmission in a few years, but the car was easy to drive and handled well. Even though there were police up ahead, people didn’t change their driving styles, and cars were sneaking in front of me if I left them enough space. It wasn’t nearly as scary as I thought it would be, but I was happy to hand over the wheel to Miguel again once he deemed us clear of the checkpoint zone.