Would You Drive A TVR Chimaera Down Bolivia’s ‘Death Road’?
Photography by Alvaro Pinzón
This is the second installment in the journey, which will see this TVR Chimaera go through South America to the South Pole. Read part 1 here.
When we last left the continent-trotting TVR Chimaera it had been dropped off at a Land Rover shop for some repairs and maintenance. Shortly after inspecting it, and with our fevers on the mend, Ben Coombs and I hopped back in and got on the road again, leaving Lima to head further down the Peruvian coastline. We had 400km ahead of us before we’d reach Nazca, and along the way we passed by a few straggling Dakar participants. After six hours or so of driving, we arrived in town just as the last half-hour of sunlight was on its way out. This is of course the site of the famous Nazca Lines, the massive drawings in the desert here, and there’s a nice four-story viewpoint available to tourists, but from this height only a few of the smaller and medium-sized designs are able to be kept in the frame; the larger ones would require height nearly some kind of upper “-sphere” I’m sure. In all, these pre-Colombian artifacts make up 300 distinct drawings, believed to have been created by the Nazca culture that lived here. Or aliens, if that’s your persuasion.
Following our path, the next day we started to climb back into the Andes mountain range after leaving Nazca behind; the twisting road that we took sent us above 4,300m of elevation, and as you might be able to guess, it was an extremely fun drive full of the kinds of corners you’d hope and expect to find in this terrain. There was not much by way of other traffic either, and we had ample chances to stretch out the thirsty V8 under the hood leading our way.
Summiting, we encountered another strange landscape set before us: the Altiplano, or “high plain,” is 4,000m above sea level, and it goes on for miles and miles like this. We were aimed at the beautiful Peruvian city of Cusco, and we’d be traveling there predominantly at these low-oxygen altitudes. We definitely felt the effects as did the TVR, but it wasn’t so bad to slow down a bit anyway seeing as we had plenty to look at. The temperature fluctuated often and seemingly around every ridge and corner—we had a few pellets of hail and some freezing rain along the way—and we were also passing plenty of wildlife to complete the scene; vicuñas and llamas were a common sight in the grasslands beneath the towering peak of the Nevado Piquenes.
Along our way we encountered another traveler, though his gear was a bit different than ours: he was taking his old taxi-fied 1920s Chevy from Argentina to Alaska. After that we arrived in Cusco with plans to visit Machu Picchu nearby. Unfortunately for us, we’d come just after a landslide had made the schedule work decidedly not in our favor. Instead, we got in touch with some fellow petrolheads from the Peruvian car club in Cusco, and we set up a time to meet up and share some stories between us. We talked cars for a while over the Peruvian drink called Pisco, but soon enough it was time for us to set off again for our next stop: the city of Puno right before the Bolivian border.
Puno is located right on the side of the everyone’s favorite lake, Lake Titicaca, and it’s a cold city up on the Altiplano; we were at 3,800m above the sea level on the side of the biggest lake on the continent though, so shivering wasn’t cause for much complaint.
The next day we were lucky enough to be stopped by a protest, so we had to backtrack and take the long way around, passing through Copacabana on the way. After a bunch of paperwork, we finally crossed into Bolivia but still needed to get across the lake, which necessitated putting the TVR up on a ferry. A strange picture it was: crossing the world’s highest navigable lake in a rudimentary boat with a right-hand drive British sports convertible by our side. To top it off we enjoyed a few moments of a rainbow forming in the mist surrounding us. Not something I will likely experience again in this life. The people on shore felt the same way, and we had plenty of questions to answer as the green TVR rolled off the planks onto shore, crushing a few on its way.
From there La Paz was only about two more hours down the road, so we followed our path on the Altiplano at a more leisurely rate, gawking often at the Illimani Mountain in the near distance to our left side. We entered El Alto at 4,000m—the city next to the capital city of La Paz that boasts the title of highest major metropolis in the world. We snaked our way through the busy streets and finally made our descent to la Paz.
Soon it was time for us to drive across the North Yungas Road, otherwise know as the “Death Road.” Good thing we had the proper car for this steep and unbound bit of treacherous navigation! I reckon I was a bit overwhelmed with all the facts about it: an unpaved road that goes from 4600m of elevation to sea level in a short distance of only 33km, in some points it is only 3.5m wide with a falloff of more than 800m. Now imagine going across all that with the relatively low and wide TVR chimaera…. Ben was a bit more confident than I was, and he convinced me to go eventually, so the next morning we’d give it a shot.
First we had to find good gasoline in Bolivia—another feat on its own—so we basically went on the hunt for octane booster in every shop we found along our way before we left the city. It was also difficult to find a good petrol station, as basically none of them want to sell petrol to foreigners at the same rate as the locals, so on that finding gas alone we spent nearly two hours searching!
After an hour climbing on paved roads from La Paz, we finally went to the Death Road. The day didn’t look a good fit for what we were about to do, and our fears and adrenaline alike were heightened by the humid, cold, cloudy conditions at the top of the path. So it was with a bit of rain falling from just slightly above us that we started our descent.
The road was closed as the principal road nearly ten years ago, and the government opened a second one to try to minimize the dangers; each year, the Death Road is said to be the site of an average of 209 accidents. Between landslides, crashes with other cars, and simply falling off the edge after losing control on the at-times very steep grade, it’s claimed the lives of a lot of unfortunate travelers. Because the road is so narrow, the law forces those crossing it to drive on the left side rather than the right (in order to better place one’s cliffside wheels), making it a little bit more familiar for Ben and his TVR.
After three hours of crossing narrower and narrower paths with falloffs, cascades, landslides, and river-submerged paths, we arrived at the bottom. In all, it was just mental. Truly epic views were countered by anxiety and adrenaline, the weather fluctuated wildly with the elevation, as did the vegetation, and throughout all of it the TVR was a sure-footed and faithful companion.
After that experience we came back to La Paz (by a different route of course), staying a couple more days in the city preparing for the next chapter. Our next adventure took us on the biggest salt flat in the world, the Salar de Uyuni. Stay tuned!