Well, we kept the details of today’s plans a bit secret because we are pretty sure we would have been told by our parents, family, and possibly friends not to do what we planned on doing. But, now that we have returned alive and did not witness anyone dying we can most definitely share.
You see, today we biked Bolivia’s infamous Death Road. Yes, when this was a main “highway” (highway being a very loose term here since it is a gravel, mostly one lane, if that, road) roughly 350 people a year would lose their lives in car accidents (aka, their car would fall over a cliff). Now that they have built a real highway (Note: paved, two lanes, one in either direction) this road is mostly full of downhill mountain bikers some of which also lose their lives.
According to our guide, roughly 2 a year die and, in fact, they witnessed a death only a month ago when a guy decided to try a trick/pass someone on the wrong side and went straight over the edge. Thankfully (if you can say that), every time there is a fatality, some money emerges to build more guardrails. So yay!
Before you get too terrified reading this (Seriously, we lived it. You have no right to be scared right now), we went with the one and only company recommended by Lonely Planet. It may have been twice the amount of money but my patchamama, it was worth it.
We woke up bright and early to meet our tour with Gravity Bikes, grabbing a quick breakfast on our way out. At 7:15 we were rolling into Oliver’s Bar to see that it was hopping with people eating breakfast waiting for our 7:30 departure. Since we’d already eaten we killed time by attempting to interpret a 5th edition French Lonely Planet about the American West. We were particularly amused by their choices for key phrases all French speakers should know when traveling in this portion of the U.S. These included, but were not limited to: 9/11 (pronounced 9-1-1 supposedly), Dubya (Yep, George W Bush), and scallywags (how is that important?).
A short while later we had learned that the large group of people at Oliver’s would be split into two groups and we would be a part of Matt’s group. He was very excited to have us since he too was American, a native of Vermont but had spent many years based in Seattle running tours with G Adventures and had spent last summer running bike tours in Alaska.
Matt’s group was gathered and escorted out of the bar to board our very bright orange bus equipped with bright orange seats as well. As we drove through the city towards La Cumbre where we would start we did some introductions and stopped every so often for safety checks/bathroom breaks. On board was a couple from Switzerland, a guy from Australia (his wife was staying back in La Paz – possibly a smart choice), a girl from Argentina, a guy from Singapore, and a set of four friends from various countries (Poland, Holland, England, and Russia). The Russian guy, Roman, we found to be a bit odd. He chose to wear a football jersey and diamond earring for the occasion and spent the majority of the ride staring off into the distance, listening to his headphones, as we all tried to get his attention for various things. We also met our driver, Juan, and photographer/second guide, also named Juan.
By 8:30 we were at 4700 m at La Cumbre where we were outfitted with our gear. Right away we were psyched, not only were we getting $5000 specifically-made downhill bikes, we had gloves, a helmet, and a tough jacket and pants. This was quite extensive compared to the other companies in the vicinity whose shocks seemed minimal and whose tough gear was non-existent. While most of us were satisfied with our helmets, Roman decided that he wanted to look cooler in the pictures so swapped his for a dirt biking helmet.
Before we departed we all gathered in a circle to request a good ride from Patchamama with the help of 95% proof potable alcohol, a favorite among Bolivians. To do this, we all poured a bit out on the ground for Patchamama (she’s our homie, right?), poured a bit on our front tire, and took a very tiny swig… It was enough to burn your lips. I should say, all of us except Roman who practically finished the bottle (Those Russians!).
Then we were off! The first quarter of the day’s ride would be along the paved highway down from La Cumbre into a valley surrounded by barren mountains except for a waterfall here and there. We were above the cloud line at this point so the entire section offered spectacular views and allowed us to get familiar with our bikes. The section also featured a lovely drug checkpoint, checking for chemicals coming into the coca-filled valley. It also offered us a further negative glimpse into the tours offered by other companies. While we were keeping in a single file, at least a bus length apart, another group, we’ll call them the Green Douchebags (Green for their jackets), chose to ride in a tightknit group, tailgating and weaving in and out of cars and buses. Unfortunately this would not be our last encounter with the Green Douchebags.
By this point the two of us were very confident with our abilities to maneuver the bikes. According to Doug, he had an appropriate amount of confidence with his only complaint being that Matt wasn’t going as fast as he would have liked. This would soon change for Lynn when they were given a taste of a gravel-filled section of road to avoid a tunnel. You see, Lynn chose to do this ride never having mountain biked before (again, she survived), and didn’t quite have a handle on going over very large rocks without locking her brakes up and skidding. Doug, having mountain biked before, also found this bit a tad challenging which made Lynn feel only slightly better.
When we had all arrived in the small town of Unduavi, had a small snack, and paid our road tax, we loaded up the bikes on the van to proceed to the Death Road (this allowed us to avoid 8 km of uphill). Slowly we left the glorious paved road and entered a gravel, rutted practically one-lane road enshrouded with clouds. This would be our home for the next 4 hours.
We exited the bus and got another quick briefing from Matt since a number of things would now be different. First, there would be a lot of “baby heads” (large movable boulders) on this portion on the ride. We would need to avoid them if we could or if we couldn’t, make sure we got directly over them without breaking. Next, we would need to stick to the left-side (note: cliff side) of the road and pass on the right. This is due to the fact that uphill vehicles (yes, crazy people still drive this road including our support van) have the right of way, so if the downhill vehicle needs to backup, they can see their wheels in relation to the cliff’s edge. And lastly, we needed to promise Matt that we wouldn’t “ride like a fucking idiot.” Doug also made this promise to Lynn.
And once more we were off into the thick fog engulfing the Death Road. Doug stuck to the front behind Matt or Juan depending on who was leading while Lynn stuck to the rear of the group, determined not to go over an edge. While Doug confidently rounded turns, passed those going more slowly, Lynn focused on not locking her brakes up and going as slowly as safely possibly. She may have been going too slow because at one point she was not listening to Matt and instead riding along the right side when she was startled by the appearance of a car very slowly headed her way. To give it the right of way, she turned sharply left and fell over. No major damage occurred, thankfully, but that was enough of a wake-up call for her to figure this whole mountain biking thing out.
Every now and then we would stop along the road for breaks where we would be prepped for the upcoming terrain, take pictures of us posing at cliff edges (Note: not Lynn) or under waterfalls, or hear gruesome stories of the various deaths that took place along the road. Doesn’t that just get you in the mood to continue? Doug was having a blast at the front of the group playing leapfrog with the British guy and bouncing through the ruts. Lynn, on the other hand, was thankful for the cloud cover (you don’t know how high you are!) and focused on improving. She eventually figured out that she needed to stop braking so much and just roll over the terrain to avoid locking her brakes up so much despite what her brain was telling her. Oh and I mentioned the Green Douchebags. Well, we were with them all the way down the mountain and they didn’t get any less douchey. They continued to clump, leaving less than 3 ft of space between each other and you. They also barrelled down the hill in these groups, swarming you on all sides. At one point a group of 5 or so were speeding around a blind corner, taking up the entire road, when they came upon Lynn. one of them was going too fast to completely stop behind her and he was too close to the rest of his group to pass on the right, so he and ended up fishtailing when he locked his brakes up and hitting Lynn’s rear tire. Luckily neither of them went down, but the Green Douchebags certainly earned their named.
Over the course of the day we dropped 3500 m and didn’t lose a single member of our group to injury or worse. Doug was exhilarated. Lynn breathed a big sigh of relief. We celebrated at the bottom with glasses of cold beer while we waited for some of the group to complete their zipline across the valley.
When we were regrouped we continued on to a nearby wildlife reserve for a buffet lunch and to visit with the rehabilitated monkeys and capybara from inside our human cage.
At 5 p.m. we were back on our bus for a 3 hour ride back to La Paz. It was delightfully uneventful. Lynn passed the time by beginning this blog, while Doug got more and more disturbed by the number of missing guardrails on the new highway and taking photos of the passing scenery. We made it back to the city by 8 p.m. exhausted and ready for a shower.
Daily Riding Mileage: 64 km
- Pachamama is an Andean goddess similar to Mother Earth. While the majority of Bolivians are Roman Catholic, they also maintain their indigenous beliefs such as Pachamama.
- The Death Road wasn’t named as such due to the number of traffic fatalities, but instead due to the number of Paraguyan POW fatalities from initially building the road.
- Protests and demonstrations are very, very common in Bolivia so much so that most buses won’t guarantee an arrival time because of these unexpected delays. This is why our guide Matt said we may be home by 8 p.m. or as late as 11 p.m. Thankfully, it only took the expected 3 hours.