Staring down into the seemingly endless rolling ravine a few metres to my left and then ahead at the steep, thick gravel strewn road, I nervously tested my mountain bike’s brakes for the 15th time that mourning.
I surveyed the protective cycle clothing I was wearing – shin pads, helmet, elbow pads and thick jacket and trousers – and concluded it was no protection from the beautiful but deadly green abyss that followed the road for the next 64km.
I was about to, very hesitantly I might add, cycle down the infamous Bolivian ‘Death Road’.
Death Road is the standard tourist trip everyone does when they come to La Paz, Bolivia. It is named so because in 1995 the Inter-American Development Bank christened it as the “world’s most dangerous road”
In 2006, one estimate stated that 200 to 300 travellers were killed yearly along the road. Search ‘Death Road’ on You Tube and you’ll find videos of busses falling off the road’s hairpin bends.
A new road was built, taking the old one out of service to traffic (though cars do still pass through it) and for about the last ten years it’s been used as a daredevil excursion where tourists, starting at 4,750m above sea level, cycle 64km downhill.
I remember eight years ago, on a particularly terrifying bus ride from Laos to Thailand, meeting a girl who had cycled Death Road. I remember thinking ‘wow that girl must have some balls, I’d never do it’.
Here I was 8 years later doing exactly what I thought I never would.
I’m sure nowadays the bikes and equipment are of much better quality than 8 years ago. There are now many agencies that sell the tour, the best undoubtedly being Gravity, who have been running the tour for the longest. But at $120 per person Gravity was too expensive for us, so we opted for a mid-range company called Extreme Downhill ($75 per person).
Starting the tour, we drove to the top of the new road. Here the equipment was handed out. The bikes were the make Giant and looked new and sturdy. The breaks worked well. At first when we were handed all the protective clothing I thought it was a bit excessive. Later I would be thankful for all of it!
All kitted up we started on the paved road to get us used to our bikes. The journey is completely downhill so you go fast and have to use your breaks to control your speed. The scenery is beautiful, if the height a little terrifying. On the first part the roads are smooth and with little traffic so it’s a pleasure to cycle down at speed with the freezing wind in your hair.
After about 20km we reached a tunnel that bikes are not allowed to pass through so we had to take an unpaved slip road.
Confident, I headed down the slip road at speed. Then, suddenly, I panicked. My brain was yelling ‘look at all the big stones, you’re going to come off your bike!’ So I pulled hard on my brakes to stop, for what I don’t know exactly. This was a big mistake. The bike buckled and I went flying forwards. My husband, who was just behind me, was forced to brake hard too and also came flying off his bike.
Fortunately, the road was fairly wide at this point and the cliff edge lined with thick bushes. We were both fine and got back on our bikes.
Once we exited the side road we were back on flat road for another five minutes then we entered the ‘Death Road’.
It is easy to see where the road got its name from. The height is dizzying, the road narrow, pebble-lined and full of sharp curves, some that leave only three-four metres of road, that’s not much road if you come flying off your bike.
The scenery is beautiful; lush jungle bush that flows down for hundreds of metres into a green abyss. Though as I rolled down the road holding onto both my breaks for dear life and gritting my teeth it was, to be honest, hard to enjoy.
After about ten minutes of cycling I noticed a cyclist ahead of me legs and body flat out on damp gravel floor, bike nearly hanging off the cliff. As I got closer and the person got up to get back on their bike. I then realised it was my husband! My heart skipped a beat. He was fine but had this happened on a narrower part of the path, who knows how it could have ended.
This, for want of a better word, shit-me up, so I went slow and careful afterwards, my hands going numb from both the cold and clinging onto the bike breaks. My arse also took a battering from the continual bump, bump of the bikes’ wheels on the hard stones.
Other bikers seemed to have no trouble, though. I think it helps to be an experienced, confident, off-road biker and my husband and I not really, both of us having not owned a bike in about 15 years.
The key to cycling Death Road, I think, is just to relax and whatever you do don’t panic and pull sharply on your breaks! And always use both breaks at the same time and not only one as this will cause the bike to buckle.
Once we completed the first hour of the road the second was much easier, with wider roads and bush lining the cliff edges.
As you probably guessed we survived (and got the T-Shirt to prove it) me coming in last at every stop! The journey ends at the beginning of the jungle so the climate is a hot and humid, much welcomed after the cold of La Paz and just about everywhere else in Bolivia.
Am I glad I did it? Honestly, I felt I accomplished something at the end, but I can’t say I actually thoroughly enjoyed it. Plus, for me, it wasn’t worth the weeks of back pain that I subsequently had to endure after coming off my bike, but I guess that was my fault!
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