Death Road, Bolivia

Independent – Contents Page

Holy Heights... La Cumbre, Bolivia

Wandering the streets of La Paz, Bolivia, Ben Connor signs up for a death road bike tour and is soon feeling very much alive.

With eyes focused intensely on the road I pedaled hard over corrugated surface. Cliffs of lush greenery rose vertically on my right glistening with thousands of pearl water droplets. Then looking to my left I found a wall of billowing mist had materialised. It was dream-like and focus lost I just couldn’t stop staring – starting to drift in its welcoming wisps of fluffy cotton wool fibre. I soon visualised leaving the road and mountain mist riding: pedaling through a Never-Never land of magic and fantasy. I thought of flying boats, floating islands and Buddha all shiny and smiley. I thought very little about the road and, wheels finding soft sand, swerved dangerously close to the edge of it.

The road then dropped below the bank of mist and I looked back up at it. That perversely alluring white world above was a drop plummeting hundreds of metres: from the rail-less road’s shoulder to a bottom of fierce rocks and foliage.

I, it seems, was just another tourist on the most dangerous road in the world tempted by a mountain mist siren.

The night before I had been walking between the ancient colonial buildings of Sagarnaga Street in the tourist district of the city of La Paz, Bolivia. I’d soon found myself surrounded by a seemingly endless supply of mountain bike tour companies, their shop fronts emblazoned with names selling a prospective experience on its likelihood of killing me – or the instability of mind I was likely to be experiencing should I take up their offer.

The experience they provided was a Death Road tour.

A Death Road tour is a mountain bike descent from 4700 metres to 1500 metres through the majestic valleys of the Andean mountain range north east of La Paz. The death road title itself comes from a two-way, single lane, dirt road section of that descent, carved in to a ninety-degree cliff side.

Subject to the weathering of waterfalls and heavy rainfall, death roads status as a road is often in question. The road, possibly due as much to the disturbingly low standard of driving in Bolivia as its poor quality, claims up to 200 lives per year; some of which have been tourist on Death Road tours.

Deciding that the spectre of death would generate a feeling of living life more fully I soon found myself in search of an appropriate tour company. While spoilt for choice I was attracted to one: ‘Down Hill Madness’. Its lure was definitely not its price (it was in fact the most expensive), but in the fact that the bikes to be used on this intrepid and by all accounts dangerous adventure were displayed at the shops front. They looked new, tough and inspired a feeling of security.

I booked a tour for the following day.

Early Morning Shadow... La Paz, Bolivia

7:15am: La Paz at daybreak has a special kind of something. Looking down to Plaza San Francisco, as I strolled through the cold crisp air from my hostel near Plaza Pedro De Murillo, I saw the first rays of sunlight hit the steeple of Iglesia de San Francisco basking its baroque architecture in an appropriately heavenly glow that contrasted beautifully with the dark shadow in the cement valleys of the city streets I strolled along. I stopped in to a small café on Sagarnaga Street to be served by a rather decrepit old man, looking very much like an Adams Family relative, and got myself a quick breakfast of scrambled eggs on toast and coffee.

7:45am: I arrived at the shop front, was provided with my gear (gloves, helmet and waterproof pants) and met the other participants. We climbed aboard the tour companies shinny black 4-wheel drive and were off.

9:00am: Arriving at the departure point of La Cumbre we took in the brisk high altitude air and dazzling scenery – a large lake on an Andean snow dappled mountaintop, one of the hills of which displayed a Jesus statue silhouetted with arms outstretched against bright, lapis lazuli skies.

9:15am: After a short prep talk we were off: Ten kilometres of paved road stretched before me with very little cliff side danger. This was an opportunity for speed. Our guide advised that should we arrange our torsos and heads in a torpedo like formation – perfectly parallel to the ground, heads just above and in front of the handle bars ­– we could reach speeds of up to 70 km an hour.

Don't get too comfortable... the pre-death road journey

I did this and indeed moved faster, taking corners’, it seemed, like a Winter Olympiad on slalom course. I found the position a little uncomfortable however and soon discovered that my need for speed had drawn my attention from the scenery.

Looking up I saw massive mountains and sheer cliffs covered in lush green grass and foliage displaying cascades of astounding beauty. Clouds formed a white surface deep in the valley.

10:30am: Passing a coca checkpoint we began a grueling twenty-minute climb at the end of which we stopped, each one of us collapsing immediately. Vast quantities of water and our first snack of chocolate bars and bananas were devoured greedily.

11:00am: Cement pavement gave way to dirt and snaked its way down a hillside to the small town of Chuspitata.

Then… Death Road:

One wrong move and... The Corners of Death, Death Road, Bolivia

With no more than three metres between cliffs face and cliffs edge I couldn’t help but feel nervous. Cars, buses and massive trucks were coming at me from in front and behind. I stopped in rest areas to allow them passage then watched with amusement and alarm as they tried to pass each other (in the slightly wider passing zones available). On tight corners, with shacks made out of branches and palm leaves, traffic signalers stood with green and red paddles signaling to oncoming traffic. As they aren’t always there our guide was ahead at all times signaling the group of any oncoming danger. One of our group was sticking a little too close to the guide and I watched with alarm as a mini-van appeared around a cliff suddenly. He swerved (narrowly escaping collision with the vehicle) and almost drove off the edge!

Misty temptations... Death Road

1:00pm: After a half hour lunch we were off again, riding beneath waterfalls, sliding through the mud and feeling decidedly pleased with ourselves.

Then the ‘Corners of Death’ appeared, providing the most disturbing and awe-inspiring view of death road yet. Before me were nothing but cliff faces undulating in vertical waves with death road cutting a snake like horizontal line through the middle.  I questioned the worth of continuing onward, but soon found myself riding along that deathliest, Death Road, cliff-side, extravaganza and feeling invincible.

Then I stopped, looked around and saw a condor gliding. I took it all in: the cliffs; the waterfalls; the winding road and deep, lush green valley…While it may be the most dangerous road in the world, Death Road is arguably the most beautiful.

Riding on the aforementioned mist descended and I almost died from the induced ruminations.

Lemmings!... The Corners of Death, Death Road

I continued, triumphant, till, with time… it was over.

1:45pm: No more cliff side danger. We were at a much lower altitude. The road and surroundings became dryer, dustier. After half an hour of this however, our guide took the group down a single-track off-road path. It was like a danger-zone in a BMX cross-country circuit and was probably the most precarious and thrilling part of the tour. Descending a very steep and unstable track, sheer drops to one side, I navigated my front wheel over rocks, potholes and around sudden plummeting corners.

We were soon gliding along a dirt path flanked by low stonewalls. It zigzagged across a wide stony riverbed and crossed small wooden bridges over converging ravines. We had arrived at the luxurious Hostal La Sanda Verde.  Crossing a long wooden drawbridge over a rocky, white-water river we deposited our bikes with a waiting 4WD then, backtracking, walked by a menagerie of monkeys, ducks, rabbits, parrots (of the most brilliant orange and blue hues – housed in a rustic watchtower), and a strange South African flightless bird, most of them freely roaming the property.

2:45:  Having cleansed myself in a steamy high-pressure shower I relaxed by the hotels smart looking jungle side pool. I then played a bit of water volleyball, a cold beer always at hand, before retreating to the restaurant. Here I was treated to a quality all you can eat buffet of curry, rice, meat and vegetable sauces, spaghetti, garlic mushrooms, steamed vegetables and battered aubergines. My dessert was a melted chocolate brownie with ice cream and a cappuccino worthy of a sun drenched Roman Piazza.

After a few hours of relaxation and playing with the monkeys minivans drove us back the way we’d come and again we found ourselves potential Death Road statistics. I was strangely unconcerned and, as the sunset and the sky became a deep crimson I was soon asleep ­– riding off death road cliffs and into the misty never-never.

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