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Passengers rebuild the road that had turned into a metre-deep gorge from the rain. (Ellen Keith)
Passengers rebuild the road that had turned into a metre-deep gorge from the rain. (Ellen Keith)

I risked my life on a Bolivian bus ride to save $60 Add to ...

Sometimes things don’t go as planned – and those moments often make for the best stories. Tripping columns offer readers a chance to share their wild adventures from the road.

The Bolivians warn us not to take the 18-hour bus ride from Rurrenabaque to La Paz.

“Flying is much safer,” a local guide says. “Every month, buses plummet into that valley; it’s a death road.”

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But Katja and I are solo backpackers, spurred by thin wallets and a sense of adventure. So we depart the Amazon village on a night-bus painted with dolphins and busty supermodels. We’re two girls who have just met, sandwiched between voluptuous Quechua women in bowler hats. Bundles of maize and howling babies spill out of their awayu blankets and into our laps.

Outside, the rain pelts down while lightning forks give us glimpses of the dirt road. I bounce out of my seat with each pothole, but somehow, sleep still finds me.

I awake when Katja slides into me. Out the left window, I see nothing but mud; to the right, only stars. My throat tightens. We’re stuck in the muck at a 45-degree angle. Any moment, the bus could tip.

The driver orders the men to get off. Katja and I scramble out too, sinking to our ankles in the mud. The men tie a rope to the bus, and heave until it rights.

In the morning, the bus stops again. A cargo truck has sunk into the road ahead, so the men’s muscles are called back to action. We women trudge out of the way, past the long line of stuck vehicles and across mountains of mud.

It takes an hour and a half to rebuild the road, which had turned into a metre-deep gorge, with hands and shovels. When we climb back onto our bus, our legs are filthy, crusted to the knees.

When night falls, we’ve passed the 18-hour mark and we’re still a half-day’s journey from La Paz. It’s getting rank; the stench of soiled diapers grows stronger by the minute.

What’s worse, we’ve reached the deadly stretch – the cliffs. Blind hairpin turns on a road designed for one-way traffic and only the moon for light.

Each time a bus approaches, someone hops off and guides the oncoming vehicle backward until its rear end hangs off the cliff and there is room to pass. With every switchback, I peer down into the foggy valley, and hold my breath. The storm picks up again. The Bolivians begin to pray.

“Can I hold your hand?" Katja whispers, as her reserved German nature falls to the wayside. Tonight, we are alone together. We listen to music to calm our nerves, but this leaves me wondering which of these songs will be our last.

I promise myself that if we make it back to La Paz, I’ll never again put my life on the line to save $60. That I’ll stop caring about being adventurous. About being local. I make so many promises that I lull myself back to sleep.

When I awake, I spot the glimmering lights of La Paz. We made it, but Katja and I are far more grateful for the solid ground beneath our feet than for the cash in our wallets.

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