Keeping alive on one of the world’s most dangerous roads

Prudence, skills and experience have kept Juan Manuel Manrique alive for 45 years on one of the most dangerous roads in the world. This is Paso de los Caracoles in Chile.
Paso de los Caracoles, Chile.
Paso de los Caracoles in Chile, one of the world’s most dangerous roads.
I don’t like to stay in hotels and eat in restaurants. My cooking is much better,” says Juan Manuel Manrique.

Paso de los Caracoles – in English ’Snail’s Pass’ – was named after its 29 slow turns which take trucks and cars from 800 metres above sea level, to the border crossing into Argentina at a dizzying 3200 metres. In the winter, ice and several metres of snow make both the climb and the descent very hazardous, and in the summer, the heat relentlessly punishes the brakes and engines of the heavily laden trucks.

“Every time I see an accident, I wonder what made that particular driver drive too fast and then I think about his family who will never see him again” says Juan Manuel Manrique as he powers up the steep incline. “Prudence, respect, but never fear, that’s what my father taught me, and it has worked so far.”

He takes the next turn extra wide to accommodate a truck heading down in to the valley. The drivers greet each other with a friendly wave of the hand and a hello through the open windows. At turn 10 he points to a destroyed container at the slope between turn 10 and 12. He explains that the driver of that truck was driving way too fast coming down, with a cargo of wine from Argentina. The trailer tipped over, and pulled the tractor with it.

“I think the driver saved himself by jumping out, just before the truck rolled down the mountain. He broke several bones, and was badly injured” he says with a serious look on his face. “But at least he lived.”

Prudence, respect, but never fear, that’s what my father taught me, and it has worked so far.

His eyes never leave the road as he negotiates the sharp curves climbing up the Chilean Andes, heading for Argentina. Each curve has a number, and the one which has claimed the most lives, number 17, has been dubbed ‘Curva de la muerte’ or ‘Turn of the dead’. His eyes narrow a bit as he drives past the sign, but his focus is absolute. He points out different places where accidents have happened, both recently and in the past. Many of the unfortunate ones were personal friends, and it becomes clear that a certain brotherhood exists, a brotherhood of drivers who frequently drive here, on the most important border crossing between Chile and Argentina.

Being the shortest route from the port of San Antonio to the west of Santiago in Chile to the area of Mendoza in Argentina – and also further into Brazil – it is vital to the logistics in the area. Goods from all over the world, from bananas coming down the coast from Ecuador to shiny new cars from Asia – this road carries it all. Today, Juan Manuel’s refrigerated trailer is loaded with 25 metric tonnes of bananas heading for Mendoza. The torque of the engine and the smooth gearbox allows him to give the dangerous road his full attention.

Every time I see an accident, I think about the driver’s family who will never see him again.

Juan Manuel has spent 45 of his 64 years driving trucks all over South America. He leaves his wife and four grown up children in his hometown of Mendoza, Argentina, when he is out on the road. He thinks about them a lot, but his family take comfort in the fact that he has never had an accident, and they know that his main priority is to make it home to see them again.

“The attitude of the company owner has a big impact on the accident statistics” he explains. “Some owners don’t care about the driver, they push them too hard, the equipment is old and out-dated, and that always means more accidents.”

He explains that the company he drives for now has never had any serious accidents and that it is one of the biggest companies active on the Chile – Argentina route. The owner has a very close relationship with his drivers.

“When the owner calls to check how you are, asks about your family, and takes a genuine interest in your well-being, it makes a big difference on the road,” Juan Manuel says. “Too much pressure is not good.”

The company has 80 trucks, another 30 on order, and specialises in refrigerated cargo. All of the trucks are Volvo FHs, and the company is the first in Chile to buy the new FH. The truck Juan Manuel drives is a 2015 FH 500 tractor the company just took delivery of. It has an I-Shift gearbox, and a 6x2 axle configuration. With a one driver – one truck policy, it soon becomes a trusted friend on the road. 

My father taught me everything about trucking, and also about these mountains.

“These new trucks have such good visibility, suspension and brakes, they are much less tiring to drive than the old ones,” he explains. “They are also much safer. They are very comfortable to sleep in, so you wake up the next day ready to hit the road well-rested. The beds are comfortable, and these trucks really are a home away from home. I have never had an unplanned day down due to technical problems with one of these.”

As the sun prepares to set behind the mountains, he prepares himself a meal of steak and chicken by the side of the road. He talks of the times his wife comes with him on the road.

Paso de los Caracoles takes traffic to the border crossing into Argentina at a dizzying 3200 metres above sea level.

“Nobody cooks like my wife” he says, “but when we are on the road together, I do all the cooking. It’s her time to rest. I don’t like to stay in hotels and eat in restaurants. My cooking is much better, and healthier.”

He sits for a while in his chair, and looks out over the mountains that have been his workplace for so many years, and brought him both joy and sadness. In a couple of years he will retire, and spend all his time with his wife at their home in beautiful Mendoza.

“My father taught me everything about trucking, and also about these mountains.” Juan Manuel remembers. “Once, he told me that the Andes will always be here. Always. We will all die, sooner or later. But the Andes remain.”

The truck

Model: Volvo FH 500 I-Shift 2015 tractor with a 6×2 axle configuration.
Engine: 13 litre straight six with 500 hp and 2,500 Nm torque at 1,050–1,400 rpm.
Trailer: American refrigerated trailer from Utility with 27.5 mt capacity.
Assignments: Refrigerated goods from Chile to Argentina.

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