As I watched as our bus ascend out of town up to 4,700 metres, I started to have misgivings. I’d already heard stories of people breaking limbs on this bicycle ride, and even saw the ugly injury of one daredevil’s crash en route.
When we reached La Cumbre, snowfall increased my anxiety. Thankfully, our guides had sense to drive just beyond the frozen roads before we were out on our own in the chilling altiplano air armed with elbow- and knee-pads, dodgy bicycles, and, we hoped, a large dose of good luck.
I was here to enjoy – or rather, conquer – one of La Paz‘s most popular backpacker attractions. But it isn’t even in La Paz itself.
It may be true that before leaving for this adventure, I promised a few people that I would not do Bolivia’s infamous Death Road.
But this all changes when you’re travelling. You hear the exhilarating adventures of others and you know you can’t miss out. Thus it was that I found myself, trembling with trepidation, climbing onto bike on a frosty road at the top of what was once the world’s most dangerous road.
Bolivia’s Death Road was originally the main road between La Paz and a small village called Coroico in a region called the Yungas.
Barely 3 metres wide and descending 3,600 metres, the road was built by Paraguayan prisoners of war back in the 1930s.
Before a new safer main road was built, the Ruta (or Camino) del Muerte killed an estimated 200 to 300 people a year.
In 1995, the Inter American Development Bank named it the most dangerous road in the world. But thankfully, today it’s only frequented by adrenaline junkies getting kicks out of riding the 80 kilometres downhill on mountain bikes.
We began our descent away from the glacial mountains on a paved but winding road, when I realised with some dread that my back wheel responded reluctantly to the brakes and wobbled terribly on the verge of one of the hairpin turns. After that, I knew I’d have to take it easy… for a while.
But soon, following a short ascent by bus, we careened onto a thin, windy, gravel road; the true Death Road.
It was terrifying. Steep, jarring…
… But the mind and body both adapt quickly to danger. I didn’t want to be left behind. And really, the road wasn’t quite so thin as it looked. So I eased my cramped fingers from the brakes and picked up the pace. It took a bit of practice to know my rusty bike’s limits, but once I got it under control, it was easy-going and thrill-seeking the rest of the way.
I couldn’t tell you much about the scenery, save that on the left-hand side of the road was a terrifyingly steep drop, whilst sheer cliff-face confronted us on the right.
People later told me about the numerous crosses and memorials left for the dead, but I suppose I was focusing my attention on the rocky intrusions and hairpin turns ahead of me.
It was also tricky to negotiate around other riders – the daredevils and show-offs in particular sped past without so much as an obligatory warning about their overtaking.
I must admit now that once or twice I may have cursed their course, hoping their cockiness would result in difficulties further below. But even my travel friend from Samaipata grew a little too confident on his bike and veered scarily close to the edge.
We were sent under waterfalls that thumped the road, but thankfully the further we descended, the more humid the climate became as we entered a jungle landscape.
Our final hour or so consisted of some heavy grunting and haggard breathing (on my part at least) as we levelled out and occasionally ascended, crossing rivers and making me wish for the hair-raising steep descents again.
But the thrill of arriving at our blessed alcohol-licensed destination alive was incomparable and we drank to our survival.
Looking back over the photos, it is incredible to consider the journey we had that day. I know of few other cycling adventures where you’re treading on snow at the beginning and stripped to shorts and T-shirts and swatting mosquitoes at the end.
It’s a truly unique experience, not just in Bolivia but globally and so I’m just going to put it out there; if you ever go to Bolivia, you CANNOT MISS LA RUTA DEL MUERTE!!!
More Bolivian adventures…
There are a few other Bolivian adventures you might not want to miss out on, including:
- Exploring the Amazon basin
- Descending into the mines at Potosi
- Soaking up the sun on the Isla del Sol on Lake Titicaca
- Cruising across the Bolivian altiplano and salt flats