The Flying Men of Bolivia’s Yungas Valley

It truly amazes me how people are able to find great shortcuts in any kind of situation. A while ago, we wrote about Bamboo Drifting , which was a means to cross rivers in China by balancing on a thin bamboo pole. Deep valleys exist in the jungles of Bolivia too, but the locals have chosen flying over rowing, and it’s much faster. On foot, the journey would take a good 1 hour, as they’d have to walk down to the bottom, cross the river and climb up the other side. But 30 seconds is all it takes for the people of Yungas Valley to fly across.

No, they haven’t mysteriously sprouted wings, nor do they use any fancy machines. Their flying equipment is simple – 20 ropes strung across the valley with old rusting pulleys, 200 meters above the river and stretching as long as 400 meters. Several of the local cocoa harvesters, the Cocaleros, use the ropes every day to travel to and fro along with their goods. They tie themselves to the pulleys using strips of fabric, and glide across effortlessly. Branches and leaves are used as brakes to stop themselves so they don’t end up crashing into the other side.

The installation of the rope skyway is credited to 72-year-old Don Ignacio, a cocoa harvester who was one of the first to settle in the valley in 1955. According to Ignacio, there was nothing back then and people used to carry everything on their backs like animals. “That’s when I thought about having the system of pulleys and cables. I bought steel wires and managed to stretch them across the valley using rope,” he says.

The idea of the rope travel is no doubt ingenious, but the glitches in the system cannot be ignored. Some of the ropes are over 20 years old and have considerably slackened. The tethers at each end are homemade, and are not all together reliable. Three people have fallen to their deaths in the last couple of decades. One of them was Maria’s husband, who was on his own when he lost balance and fell out of his harness, right into the river. While the locals say the deaths were due to negligence, Maria refuses to use the cables any more.


The cocaleros, however, have not lost their faith in the cables that have changed their lives for the better. No matter how old, they believe that the ropes will never break. “It doesn’t break. It will never break. It’s galvanized steel and anyway we’ve put four of them across here,” says one of them. Perhaps it’s the faith that’s kept the cables intact all this while.