To cycle or not to cycle Bolivia’s infamous death road was a question that played in my mind for many months before arriving in La Paz. Some say it’s too dangerous and tell horror stories of travellers flying off the edge of the mountain. Others say it was the best day of their trip. Here’s what happened to me…
A layer of mist sits over the mountains in the distance as I tug various padded items over my most vulnerable body parts. Everyone in the group looks confident and thoroughly acquainted with their heavy helmets and protective gear, whereas I am a novice and feel frumpy and awkward in these additions to my outfit that aim to keep me safe. There’s time for a quick group photo with team No Fear before our wheels begin to spin down the path.
The road is long and windy and there was no way of judging how far I’d gone once those wheels started turning. During the first stretch, we sped down a seemingly normal road, with trucks passing at a respectful distance and the Andies looking down on us in the background. I was at the highest level of concentration I could muster through the altitude head fog. I don’t want to become a statistic.
Bolivia’s Death road is 69 kilometres long, and heads down-hill from La Paz to Coroico through a windy, bumpy mountainside ‘road’ (some parts may be described as dirt path!). In 1995 this passageway was labelled the ‘world’s most dangerous road’ by the Inter-American Development Bank when statistics showed that this route had the highest number of deaths. For one reason or another, quite possibly because it’s a very narrow road for two way traffic with no barrier on the edge, cars were toppling off the sheer drop that lines the road all the way down. Graves and memorials mark the points of accidents to remind any brave passerby of the dangers and how quickly things can go wrong. More recent statistics show that the number of people dying each year is still in the hundreds and some of those are certainly excited, cycling tourists. The stories I heard mostly involved selfie-sticks, and there is a moral in there for all of us!
After the drugs check point, (where we were not searched) and a quick but needed snack and water, we turn right onto a rubbly path. I thought I’d been doing really well, and that this was much easier than anyone had ever described. However, this is the REAL start to the death road.
I think I was lucky because, on my day, the traffic had been blocked off for road works and so we were to be the only people on the road. I can’t imagine what it’s like to meet a lorry on one of the bends. A few cheeky locals got through the barriers and came down the road in their cars, but it was minimal traffic which meant we didn’t have to think about anything except staying up right and not falling off the edge.
The road bumps and grinds along, relentlessly pulling on muscles throughout my body to hold the bike up right and keep going. The pain in my hands from holding on so tight ached, but didn’t stop me navigating around the rocks in the road. It was worth it for every second I got to be together with the views. Beyond the cliff edge were mountains and trees and small windier roads towards tiny villages. Waterfalls cascade down the mountainside and despite a the mind numbing adrenaline that could really be fear, it’s impossible not to smile.
You know you are getting close to the final stop when the road starts to be smoother and the hurdles are no longer rocks but chickens and puppies. The village is then fast approaching and a cold beer will soon be in your face and a cold shower will sooth your battered body.
The death road experience probably isn’t for everyone, but I had a beautiful day and the views were incredible. The trip I took wasn’t the cheapest, but wasn’t the most expensive either. It was very well run and had the safety and comfort of the cyclists at it’s heart. The group waited for slower cyclists, and there was no one was pressure to go faster than they were comfortable with.
I finished my day feeling firmly in the ‘this was one of the best days of my trip’ camp.
Excited or terrified? Awesome adventure or crazy death wish? What’s your experience of the death road? Or are you still not sure if you want to do it? I’d love to know what it’s like for other people – tell me about it below: