Death Road

Trip Start Jun 04, 2009
Trip End Sep 06, 2010

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Saturday, July 4, 2009

Well today has won out as the most amazing day of the trip, if not my life, so far! There is no photo I could show you or way I could describe it that could convey just how exhilarating and unforgettable today has been but I'll try as best I can as I always do…

At this point I should put in a caveat that we threw health and safety to the wind and the following account may not be suitable for readers with a nervous disposition (i.e parents) so read on at your own risk!

As I mentioned at the end of my last entry we signed up for a mountain biking trip down

Death Road known as the worlds most dangerous road.  It’s 68km from beginning to end starting at just under 5,000m in altitude up in the snow peak mountains and heading all the way down to just over 1,200m in the jungle below.  The dangerous parts come in when after the first 20km the road turns into a dirt track approximately 3m wide with traffic trying to pass in both directions, sharp bends and a sheer cliff face on one side with no barriers and no sign of where you would come to a stop if you did go over the edge!!  You would think that the idea would be to stay as far away from the cliff edge as possible but given the sharp corners and the way the Bolivians drive in fact we had to cycle just half a meter from the sheer drop at all times so we didn’t end up meeting any traffic head on.  For encouragement different bends in the road are named 'Japanese Corner’ or ‘Irish Corner’ etc after various people who have died in those places – yikes!

So our day began being picked up from our hotel in La Paz (which was again lovely but I’ll tell you more about that later) at 7.30am by a very hippy looking American guy called Jason who greeted us with ‘Dude are you guys here to ride bikes? Awesome!’.  He turned out to be a lot of fun and during our mini-bus ride up to the peak where we got our bikes and the trip began he shared various horror stories and words of wisdom with us to prevent us from being another statistic of death road.  The bikes they gave us were unbelievable, worth just under 2000 they could handle anything, full suspension and brakes that could stop wild horses.  That was half of my problem though, the brakes were so strong I had to practice a fair bit to try to remember not to pull on them too hard or risk catapulting over the edge leaving the bike behind me!  We got fully suited up with safety gear and prepared to start out on the 20km of tarmac road that would get us used to the bikes before we hit the official dirt track start of Death Road. 

Nothing can describe the feeling of taking the first corner, as soon as we started sailing down from our start point the scenery revealed itself to us and a beautiful valley (of course with a massive drop off the side of the road) set the scene for the first stretch, of course we couldn’t be staring out at the scenery on the bikes, that’s pretty much lesson one of how to die on Death Road.  We had lots of stops to check the bikes and take in the views as we went as on the tarmac the bikes were in their element and we were flying along much faster than the traffic and still having to hug the outside lip of the road half a meter from the edge.  Another rule we were given was to keep two bus lengths between each of us, so if someone did fall you wouldn’t get caught up with them, this made the whole experience much more independent and you could feel like you were alone with the scenery.   We got through the first stretch quickly and without and hitches so were ready for the dirt track to begin.  A quick banana and chocolate bar snack stop for energy and we were ready to see what the bikes could really do.

Thanks to the amazing suspension on the bikes we weren’t thrown around too much as they would take the impact of the majority of rocks we went over, the only issue was that we couldn’t sit down on the bikes, partly due to the control we has on them and partly because we’d get very bruised bums after a while!  So our experience really began once we hit the dirt track and it only added to the exhilaration, the scenery was jaw droppingly beautiful and you felt like you were a part of it.  In the distance you could see our winding road making it across the mountains and as we wound our way down from altitude we started to be able to breathe more clearly, feel more energetic and shed layers as the heat started to hit us in waves as we turned corners.  We cycled through a couple of waterfalls, rivers and luckily saw very minimal traffic on the route.  I had the worst of it I think when a massive lorry the width of the entire road caught up with me just before a stop and I was forced to cycle right next to the cliff edge to be out of it’s way.  As some of the rest of the group were stopped for a break just further down and got their camera’s out with looks of shock on their faces I like to think I bought some drama to the occasion!

When we finally made it in one piece to the bottom Steve was feeling rather worse for wear as his previous day’s illness had taken it’s toll and he hadn’t been able to eat much during the day.  It also didn’t help that when we reached the jungle it was really hot and we were covered in dirt and dust.  Steve slept it off for a bit to rejuvenate himself while I relished the hot shower and buffet we were offered and watched back the photos taken of us throughout the day by our guides.  The place we cycled down to was actually an animal refuge centre in the jungle with lots of animals roaming around including monkeys.  This seemed to bring Steve back to his senses when he found out there were monkeys to be played with and we spent the last hour there playing with a couple of 3 month old very cheeky monkeys, one tried to get inside Steve’s t-shirt with him!

After such a great day we now faced the most terrifying part, driving back up death road in a mini-bus!  Far scarier than cycling down ourselves so we had a couple of beers for courage and braced ourselves.  Of course in classic Bolivian style there were no seatbelts and the driver would occasionally check his mobile phone to the horror of all of us.  Out of the windows you could see that we were only just short of being the entire width of the road.  Once we got right up to altitude again we entered the cloud line which threw us into complete darkness, out of the front of the bus we couldn’t see anything so I have no idea how the driver coped but he did a sterling job and safely got us back onto the tarmac road again where we stopped to pick up some Cubra Libre (local pre-mixed Cola and Rum drink) and proceeded to celebrate and dance around the bus with the guides for the rest of the trip home when, needless to say we passed out as soon as we saw our bed!

We spent another 3 days in La Paz which is the capital of Bolivia and also the worlds highest capital city.  It is often called The Bowl as the city sprawls out in a valley between mountains and the richest areas are at the bottom with property getting cheaper the higher up the bowl you go based on the amount of oxygen available to you!  Our hotel was in an excellent location right in the middle and our room had a beautiful view of the city only rivaled by the view from the rooftop restaurant where we had our breakfasts and could see all of the city and the mountains surrounding that were over 6,500m (and I had to inform Steve I had no intention of climbing them!).

La Paz doesn’t have shops in the way most places would, everything is markets and different streets specialize in different products, fruit, clothes, DIY and most interestingly the Witches market.  In this particular street the local women brew different potions for ancient remedies and their stalls have all sorts of bizarre things on them including dried llama fetuses – we had to be very cunning trying to take photos of the stalls as we got warned they usually throw things at tourists who try!

Amongst the stalls I picked up a couple of beautiful Bolivian scarves which I’m very proud of and suppressed my inner shopoholic to prevent myself from blowing the years budget on the various alpaca and llama wool shawls and jumpers (but I may have managed to sneak in a hat when Steve wasn’t looking!).  It was a really great few days and we got to see the city at our own pace without having to rush around too much and it gave us both a chance to acclimatise to the altitude in preparation for our hikes that are coming up in the next week.

Next stop Lake Titticaca…

Lots of Love

Amy and Speedy Steve
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