I was so excited about these three next major attractions that I decided to write an entry just to intro them! I’m calling them the Bolivian Death Triangle because all three of them come with risks of dying while visiting them, each for their own reason. And before you get worried about me: I’m writing this after having done all of them; after all, I only ever use my own pictures on the blog 🙂
The Uyuni salt flats, being the largest in the world, are another one of Bolivia’s top tourist attractions. The endless white ground, surrounded by snow-capped mountains and volcanoes, makes for beautiful photography and silly perspective pictures. Many tours in the area actually go for 3 or 4 days, highlighting some of the other natural, rugged beauty of the area.
However, the dark side to the flats comes in the form of tour operators with subpar safety measures: drunk drivers, missing seatbelts, and poor vehicle maintenance. One of the more infamous stories comes from 2008 (warning: graphic); since then, things seem to have gotten slightly better but are still not perfect. And if it’s not the cars that kill you, it’s the altitude: tours go up to 4,900m (16,000ft), and while tours generally carry oxygen, medical training and emergency evacuation procedures often are nonexistent. However, with sites like TripAdvisor, it’s possible to pick a much safer operator.
The Cerro Rico mine is an active mine in the city of Potosí, where former miners give tours of the mine to offer people an insight into the lives of the miners there. It’s an extremely eye-opening experience: conditions are not great, and the official statistic says 30 miners die every year (that’s one every 12 days). In addition, the average life expectancy of miners there is about 40, due to lung damage and general poor health of the miners.
Although I have not heard of tourists being killed inside, there are plenty of risks. Some tour operators do not use ex-miners as guides, meaning the guides have little knowledge of the complex network of tunnels, and would not be able to bring the group out of another exit in the case of a ceiling collapse, which happen frequently. Our guide told us a story of how one group was rescued by a miner after being lost for 24 hours, with the guide of that group leaving in tears. In addition, some sections of the mine are plain downhill train tracks, where miners just let their carts go to barrel at high speeds to the exit. In these parts, if you can’t outrun the cart or find a safe nook, you’ll be crushed. Finally, after 470 years of exploitation, the mountain is extremely brittle, and any of the many dynamite explosions triggered every day can cause a collapse, trapping or crushing the people in the tunnels.
The Death Road
Called the world’s most dangerous road in 1995, the Yungas road north of La Paz once killed 200-300 people per year. That statistic has both dropped dramatically for several reasons, and has also attracted thousands of tourists annually due to what Wikipedia would call Extreme Tourism. Indeed, whereas it was built for normal vehicle traffic, it today is almost exclusively used by tourists on bikes.
Most of the death stories you hear about these days are from overconfident (male) tourists, that are racing against friends, trying to show off, or in general are looking for more of an adrenaline rush than they can handle. Indeed, with guardrails in place in key sections, and almost all vehicle traffic diverted via a new, paved road, most deaths here probably should be classified as suicides. But Suicide Road doesn’t quite have the same ring to it…
It’s sad to see a lot of these risks be caused, in part, by a government that seems incapable of enforcing safety standards–be it for roadways, mines, or vehicles. In what feels like the complete absence of liability, it makes sense that companies and people cut corners regularly; that’s especially obvious in the number of bus accidents Bolivia sees annually. Take the perspective of an inter-city bus driver: in order to compete with the other companies that are charging ridiculously low fares, he has to try to overfill his bus and then arrive as quickly as possible to the destination, to be able to run the reverse route immediately. The only consequence of a crash, it seems, is the cost of the bus, and his own life. But with a weak social support system in Bolivia, if he doesn’t make a profit for the company, he’ll struggle to survive anyway.
Tourism makes up a small part of Bolivia’s GDP (0.5-2%, depending on who you ask); receiving 870,000 visitors compared to a population of over 11 million. But that visitor number is much more on par with that of Paraguay (650,000) than with that of Chile or Argentina (3.7 and 5.9 million, respectively), while I would claim it has the same or better natural and cultural attractions as those two.
None of this is well-researched and I can’t claim a cause-and-effect relationship here, but it does seem a little bit like a case of missing potential due to inferior infrastructure.
At the same time, I should make it clear that I don’t feel like Bolivia has any obligation to share its natural and cultural beauty with the rest of the world, or to adapt to the regulatory or legal structures of countries that I’m used to living in. While sometimes frustrating to me, I respect that I am in a different country and don’t view things here as wrong or behind the times–not the least bit because the US has made some very big missteps by doing so on a grander scheme.
And with those thoughts out of the way, I’m excited to share the pictures from these three places in the next few posts!