In Bolivia's jungles and steep cliffs the Yungas people do not walk. They fly. On ropes. Like birds. Faster than astronauts.
These 'birds' are known as cocaleros, or coca harvesters. They use
ropes to swing across the narrow valleys, suspended from ancient rusting
It takes all of 30 seconds from one side to the other. By foot it would take more than an hour.
"This must be about six or seven years old. Before then there was
nothing. Nothing," Synthe, a harvester, says. "We had to walk down to
the bottom, cross the river and then climb up the other side. It used to
be quite a hike."
The Yungas Valleys are like a sudden staircase between the towering
cordilleras of the Andes - more than 4,000 metres high - and the green
The vertical landscape is dramatic. The inhabitants have fashioned
this unusual way to move around quickly, with simple, thin wires
normally used for fencing stretching as far across as 400 metres.
It is almost a form of public transport. There are about 20 of these
cables strung across the valley. All day long, people and goods fly
across the river 200 metres below.
At each end the homemade tethers theoretically provide stability and
safety. Some of the wires have been in use for 20 years, and have
The cocaleros have never bothered replacing them. One of them
explains: "It doesn't break. It will never break. It's galvanised steel
and anyway we've put four of them across here."
At 72, Don Ignacio continues to fly across the valley every day to
tend to his coca plantation on the other side of the mountain.
Since the price of coffee collapsed, coca has taken over as the main
crop for the Yungas. It has been cultivated since the time of the Incas,
a form of narcotic chewed by the locals to overcome tiredness. It is
harvested three times a year and is worth approximately 30 per cent more
Don Ignacio was the first to settle in the valley and it was his idea to install the cable skyway.
"I first came here in 1955. I was the one who founded the community
and everything you see here. There was nothing before, nothing to get
across. We used to carry everything on our backs, just like pack
animals. That's when I thought about having the system of pulleys and
cables. I bought steel wires and I managed to stretch them across the
valley using rope," he says.
Don Ignacio's invention changed the lives of the cocaleros. Now they can easily send heavy loads across the valley.
But there are some who still doubt the flimsy wires that crisscross the valley.
Maria's husband was killed in an accident on the wires and she now
refuses to use them, despite the physical exertion of the steep climb.
"My husband fell off and fell to his death into the river. He lost
his balance somehow, fell out of his harness and fell. I'm not sure what
really happened, but he was on his own when he fell," she says.
In the past 20 years, three people have fallen to their deaths,
mostly due to negligence. Like Maria, most women prefer to cross on
"This bridge is for the women. We're too scared to cross on the
cables, so most of the women cross here. It's quite nice because we
often stop to bathe in the river.
"Look how far my husband fell. His body was shattered, his guts
splattered everywhere. It was horrible," she says, recalling the
In the Yungas Valley the work days are long and arduous. The hardest
is the harvesting of mandarins, which grow in abundance but have to be
picked within two days of ripening, otherwise they rot.
Maria and her new partner Alex can only sell fresh mandarins at the market. So, timing is crucial.
"It's always a rush, and that's when you might have an accident from
hurrying so much you might get careless and fall," says Alex. "That's
why the cables aren't as reliable as they say ... it's like Russian
Severo, a cocalero, has just returned from picking coca on the far side of the mountain. The leaves are put to dry.
"If they're not dried out, then they could turn black, and black leaves aren't worth as much as the green ones," he says.
"I put them on the ground when there's no sun. They say the mirror
attracts the sun. It sees the mirror and out it pops. That's why I've
put mirrors there."
Road of death
Life for Bolivia's cocaleros, such as Severo, has improved a little
since Evo Morales became president in 2005. Morales was the first native
Indian head of state in South America and an outspoken advocate of coca
farmers. He relaxed legal restrictions imposed previously on coca
"Before, there were embargoes and serious restrictions. Earlier
governments had said they wanted to stop coca altogether. No one
listened to our side of the story," Severo explains.
"'Coca is used to make cocaine' they said, but it's not true. Coca is
not cocaine. You need to add a lot of chemicals to make cocaine from
And, Severo has never even seen cocaine. To him, coca is a powerful therapy against fatigue, pain and altitude sickness.
Severo must make a five-hour bus ride to the Villa Fatima market in
La Paz, the only place in Bolivia where the cocaleros are allowed to
sell their crop.
Despite efforts to control the sale of coca leaves, an estimated
one-third of all that is sold here end up in the laboratories of cocaine
traffickers. And, it is almost impossible to monitor unless enforcers
trail all the vehicles that leave the market filled to the brim with
But first, he needs to drag the packed coca leaves to the nearest
road on the other side of the Yungas Valley. It is a back-breaking 10
minutes up the mountain.
The road snaking its way through the valley of cables is the main
artery that links the mountain range with the plains 4,000 metres below -
a narrow dirt track as busy as any modern highway.
Bolivians call this road 'el Camino de la Muerte', or the road of death.
On the way down are manufactured goods from La Paz; on the way up are
rice, fruit and cattle from the fertile Amazonian pastures. Two-way
traffic causes vehicles to teeter on the edge of precipices.
Severo sells all three of the 25kg bags of coca leaves for 700
Bolivianos, or $180. The money he makes from the sale will get him
household supplies and some cash for his wife.
After spending a couple of days with his family, Severo heads back to
the valley. Back with Don Ignacio. Among the flying men of the Yungas
and their coca fields along the road of death.
In: Other Entertainment
Tags: coca, farming, zipline, flying, valley, farmers, remote, Yungas Valleys, cables,
Location: Bolivia (load item map)
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