“I Sarah Harris, understand and acknowledge that risks and dangers exist in extreme sports such as this”…. Blah blah blah… “and my participation in this activity may result in injury, permanent disability or death.”
Yep, sounds fair to me. Where do I sign?
Within minutes of arriving in La Paz, the capital of Bolivia we had barely put our bags down and yet had somehow managed to book onto the aptly named Death Road Mountain Bike Tour without so much as the slightest hesitation.
Maybe it was that we had been on a rickety old bus without proper ventilation for 10 hours, or maybe it was just that I’d always said I’d do it and so refused to go back on my word, but one way or another, Wade and I signed our lives away and thus agreed to the above conditions. Plus, if we survive they not only give us a buffet lunch but we also score a free t-shirt, so really I’d say the risk was worth the benefits…. Right?
Photo: La Cumbre, 4700 metres above sea level is the starting point for this dangerous journey
Death Road, officially known as the Yungas Road, was the original route connecting La Paz to the Bolivian section of the Amazon jungle. It has been nicknamed Death Road, or Camino De La Muerte in Spanish, after countless deaths during it’s construction and use over the past 70 years. In 1995 it was listed by the Inter-American Development Bank as the Worlds most dangerous road and more recently it has been closed the vast majority of traffic with safer roads now available for this route.
The road is 64km of unsealed dirt track and has very few guardrails to stop cyclists careening over the 600 metre drops in the jungle below. However, like many traveller must-do’s it is these risks and the resulting bragging rights that make it worth doing!
So there we were at 6am in the morning, climbing up a steep and winding road in a minibus loaded with 12 bikes on the roof, piles of helmets, protective clothing and equipment, oh and how could I forget the 10 petrified westeners.
Our destination was La Cumbre, 4700 metres above sea level. If the thought of flying downhill on a mountain bike on the World’s most dangerous road didn’t give you head spins by now, the altitude sure did.
The scenery at the top was stunning, almost beautiful enough to calm the nerves slowly building in my gut. The two lunatics who would be leading our ride began throwing piles of jackets, pants, gloves, elbow guards, knee pads, shin guards and helmets out of the van.
“Find your size and take one of everything” Was our instruction.
As always one idiot piped up “Do we HAVE to wear all of this or is it optional?”. Needless to say, he was the first to lose skin that day.
Safety aside, I didn’t hesitate and began gearing up immediately. It was around 5 degrees at La Cumbre and the wind was piercing through my clothes causing my limbs to go numb which was making riding an interesting prospect.
Once we were dressed, and slightly warmer, the reality set in. We were given 15 minutes to test out our bikes, check the brakes and simply calm the nerves on the flat ground around us.
Photo: One last photo together..... Just in case!
Our guides provided a brief run down of the ride and then we were off. As it turns out, the experienced guides were just as wary of our skills as we were ourselves and the starting location has been chosen not only for it’s breathtaking views but also so that riders are given a smooth introduction to the bikes. The first 20km is all downhill on a twisting, winding sealed road, complete with safety barriers and plenty of space beside the road so that the many trucks rumbling past are not interrupted by the cyclists using this road daily. Just as our speed (and confidence) increased we were stopped at none other than a Police narcotics checkpoint. Needless to say, we had all used our stash already. Heck I wasn’t getting on this bike without being high! (Joking Mum)
Photo: Well, we look the part, so I guess that counts for something, right?
Here we were also instructed to go into a small, dilapidated building where we needed to pay an additional fee to ride Death Road. Apparently this goes towards the maintenance and safety upkeep costs of the road however my quip about the irony of this seemed to go unnoticed by the troll accepting payments.
After a quick refreshment and final test of our brakes, we were back in the saddle. As we veered off the main road and onto a small dirt track, it was almost immediate that the valley opened up and we could either ride the track on the mountainside, or we could play with fire by riding on the cliff-side and risk a minimum 20, maximum 600 metre drop. We rode, single file, using much more of our brakes than our pedals and before long, the group had spread out as the adrenalin junkies (and that one idiot with a death wish) began flying down the bumpy slopes and around dusty corners.
Photos: Just a few shots of the treacherous road considered the World's most dangerous. Can you believe that this was once a major route for trucks, buses and cars??
I casually cruised in the second pack as we were actually surrounded by some of the most eye-catching scenery we had seen so far in Bolivia. Ok and yeah I was quietly shitting myself every time my back tyre skidded around the deadly corners. The narrow dirt road is carved precariously into the side of a mountain with sections as narrow as 1.5 metres and sheer drops of up to 600 metres into the lush green jungle below. As much as I appreciated the view below, I didn’t want to become part of it!
We cruised on through the first section passing calming, drizzling cascades on our right and seconds later, deadly precipices on our left. Wade was patiently chilling behind me secretly scared that if he took off and enjoyed the ride at a faster pace thus leaving me to ride alone, he would reach the end hours later, a widow.
We regrouped after an hour of riding for a photo on one of the roads most iconic corners. Sections of this corner were so steep that we had to lie the bikes on their side so we didn’t risk a runaway bike careening over the edge while we were posing for photos!
I should mention that by this point, one bike chain had snapped, one rider had thrown in the towel and boarded the minivan and one guy looked particularly dusty and his bike suddenly scratched-up without explanation.
The girl in the van later informed us that as they followed slowly behind us, carefully navigating the narrow track, the driver was constantly stopping to point out a variety of cars, buses and trucks that had one way or another gone toppling over the edge of this notorious road. It was a gruesome reminder that prior to being closed to through traffic (other than local villagers or cyclists), this road took many lives during both its construction and daily use.
Photo: (Above and below right) One of the most famous sheer drops along the road. This sweeping corner has no safety guards whatsoever however on the upside, the road is almost it's widest at this point - around 4 metres wide. Just a little bit different to the nice smooth road we started on! (top right)
After a few photos our guide informed us that we were not even halfway through our 64 km ride so on we pressed. I took the opportunity to reassure Wade that I had no interest in dying today and was happy to stay within my comfort zone so he should enjoy himself and go on ahead. Considering I’ve rarely seen Wade ride a bike, he took off, tearing fearlessly down the hill. I made a pathetic attempt to keep up before my weak little girly hands couldn’t maintain the strength required to hang on to my rattling handlebars over the rocky ground. Here we were staring death in the face and all I could think about was the blisters forming on my delicate palms!
The most terrifying moment for me was right when the track began to smooth out a little and I was finally able to pedal rather than just squeezing my brakes for dear life. I jumped at the chance to stretch my legs out and stood up off my seat to gain some speed on what seemed to be a much safer section of road. I cruised at a decent pace around the first corner, then turned to whirr around a second blind corner, only to come face to face, in a terrified skid of dust with a small truck carrying a tray load of people!
We had been told that some of the local villagers still use this road for cars and trucks however I didn’t really believe it especially after some of the narrow sections and sheer drops that we had only just managed to navigate on two wheels let alone in a truck! The close encounter shook me up and as I pulled up to our next checkpoint where half of the group was already waiting, I less–than-gracefully went to climb off my bike, only to realize my legs had turned to jelly and I somehow ended up falling to the dusty ground in an awkward embrace with my bike. I told myself no one knew it was me thanks to our matching full face helmets but barely a second had passed before Wade came running over laughing hysterically and reminding me that I was one of two females in our group so it was pretty damn obvious it was me! Damn!
Photos: (clockwise from left) Half down, halfway to go!; Crosses along the road are a stark reminder of thee lives lost along this dangerous road; the incredible views throughout the ride
Lucky for me, the aforementioned thrill seeking douche bag had experienced a brutal encounter with the road by this point and was nursing some serious bruising, a few skinless limbs and a damaged (yet still douchey) ego, so I felt much better about hugging my bike to the ground during my dismount.
Just as our final riders pulled into the checkpoint, we all jumped back in the saddle for our final descent. By now, we were passing small villages and a few huts on the side of the road, reassuring us that the end was near. The road had all but flattened out and we were pedaling every few minutes now as we coasted over small rolling hills before one last death defying winding track.
There are a variety of trails that riders can take through this final section once the official “Camino de la Muerte” (Death Road) is complete, however our adrenalin junkie guide chose to lead us through a series of high speed corners and steep descents resembling a vertical Olympic BMX track!
Now I was blissfully unaware at the time, but later learned that Wade’s brakes had completely given up on him during this last leg of our ride. A smart man would have chosen to heed this warning and come to a smooth stop where possible, Wade on the other hand went hell for leather into the winding twists and turns using nothing but his shoes to barely survive the corners unscathed. His poor shoes on the other hand, came off even worse than the gravel-eating douche bag!
By the time I saw our van waiting patiently where the dirt track ended and the comfort of a sealed road began, I breathed a sigh of relief and eagerly said goodbye to my 2-wheeled chariot of death. My entire body was in pain, not only from my first serious exercise since Machu Picchu but also thanks to the incessant vibrating as the bike had bumped, shaken and rattled it’s way down 64km of dirt road. While we started in 5-degree temperatures, we were now some 2000 metres lower in thick, humid jungle being attacked by mosquitos and sweating in our many layers of protective clothing.
Yep. That’s right. We ALL SURVIVED which meant lunch and t-shirts all round! We all enthusiastically boarded the air-conditioned comfort of the minivan and headed to lunch.
We showered, enjoyed a buffet lunch and proudly donned our wearable verification of our achievement as a “Death Road Survivor”. We were all buggered but pumped with our efforts and ready to celebrate the day with a beer or two.
It wasn’t until we eventually arrived back in La Paz at sunset that we saw swathes of other tourists also disembarking minivans. Our ego’s were unceremoniously swatted down as we quickly noticed each and every one of them proudly sporting their own wearable bragging rights. Apparently more than 50 people cycle Death Road daily, making us just two more of the many survivors. On a side note, one out of every 100 is injured during the ride!
And just like that, our triumph suddenly became just another day surviving travel in Bolivia!
* Wade and I chose to do the Death Road Cycle through Altitude Adventures. The staff were friendly and professional and all spoke good English. Their bikes and safety equipment was in good condition and their package price also includes a CD of photos taken by the guide throughout the day. *
To find out more about Altitude Adventures, see their website here
Enthusiastic but Useless Traveler.