ROAD HARD AND PUT UP WET: DEATH ROAD IN BOLIVIA
The Yungas Road a/k/a Coroico a/k/a the Death Road or, in Spanish, “El Camino de Muerte” has been dubbed at one point or another (and may still be) as the “world’s most dangerous road” given the 200 to 300 travelers on average who slid off the cliff side to their untimely deaths annually. But for thrill seekers like me, I just can’t pass up the opportunity (or dare I say the dare) and what I learned today is neither should you. That is if you are properly equipped, properly clothed and properly guided which you will be if you take the tour with Altitude Adventures.
Altitude Adventures will provide you with everything you need from transportation, qualified English speaking guides like Julio and Ignacio, your mountain bike, knee pads, elbow pads, a helmet, biking gloves, a jacket and pants (to protect your beautiful self if you do fall), unlimited potable water, snacks, a buffet lunch and a nice swim at a nearby hotel after the “not so fateful” ride and/or a shower, towel and soap. Not only do they provide a mountain bike, it is constantly checked by the guides to ensure your safety as that is of the most paramount importance to them. And not only do they provide you with the aforementioned protective clothing you will need but you receive a complimentary “Survivor” T-shirt at the end of the ride. And not only do they teach you what you need to know in order to be safe but, they will take video footage and photographs for free so you can focus on the road ahead which you need to do given managing a camera on a road called the “Death Road” likely entails some risk. The price for this remarkable once and a lifetime activity is $104 USD for Altitude (all in except for the park fees which are paid at the time of arrival either in the amount of $7.50 USD or 50 Bolivianos).
What are you responsible for bringing with you? Warm layers, insect repellent (as we are traveling through the Amazon jungle after all), sunscreen, sunglasses, swimsuits and A SENSE OF ADVENTURE. More specifically, for me, I took my ‘go to’ clothes for outdoor activity in high altitudes where the temperature can drop unexpectedly, which are as follows:
- Nike tennis shoes,
- Nike Dri-fit socks,
- Nike sports bra,
- Nike wicking exercise pants,
- Nike wicking tank top,
- Nike zip up thin fleece,
- An ODLO wicking long john layer (which I swear by for staying warm regardless of the conditions),
- An extra pair of thin gloves to go underneath your biking gloves,
- A balaclava to protect your ears against the howling winds, and
- Sunglasses to protect the eyes.
Note you don’t have to carry all your belongings including your cameras or phones, or water or layers as the bus will follow the group with your things. So whether it’s a spare tire or a spare t-shirt, you will have what you need at all times. Now sharing the Death Road with your bus and everyone else’s buses when you are on a bike (especially when you have to travel cliff side i.e. left when they want to pass you) well, that does present its own set of problems; however, it is the way it is done so take advantage of your “motorized porter” as I like to call them. Look at it this way if you can’t finish for whatever reason, there will be a bus to take you the rest of the way.
So now that you know who to hire to keep you safe, what to bring with you and how much it will cost, I would like to share what you are likely to see and experience on Death Road without giving away too much of the surprise.
There are 2 sections by mountain bike: 1) the two lane paved road starting at La Cumbre at 4670 meters traveling at high speeds for approximately 20km; and, 2) the unpaved, often slippery when wet, rock and mud infested “ledge” of a road traveling for approximately 30km.
After the hour or so drive from La Paz hotel to the drop off point at 4,670 meters (15,322 ft), I practically fell into a coma rounding that first turn to start my descension. Not because of fear but because of awe at what I was seeing and what I was feeling. Harmonious is the word that comes to mind to describe the first leg of the trip down on that two lane paved highway with its few sporadic potholes but otherwise 99.9% of sheer perfection. It was like I was in perpetual harmony with the earth and all its inhabitants. Sounds strange I know but that’s what I felt.
I tucked my arms in as close as they would go and tucked my knees in even closer. I also arched my back much like being in the fetal position trying to remove any potential direct friction and reduce as much air pressure drag as I could. Why? So I could fly and not only fly but fly through the fog and/or clouds that began to engulf me almost right out of the shoot. Define fly? Clocked at approximately 65kph. Suffice it to say, I’ve rarely felt more peaceful in my life than I did on that bike for that first 20km down the Andean Mountains. I was truly alone in a world all my own and at one point felt a bit like E.T. at the end of the movie as if any moment the wheels of my bike would ever so gently carry me off the two lane paved road and perhaps straight to heaven.
The 2nd leg and last 30 km down the Andean Mountains was a whole different story. The grace and enchantment of the morning were gone with the exception of some lovely waterfalls in my path and these random colorful butterflies floating in front of my face. (I saw a yellow one, a blue one, a purple one and a peach one if you can believe it.) The 2nd leg became raw, unadulterated exhilaration at its best and the more you trusted yourself and your bike, the faster and crazier your got on what, at this point, on the Death Road was what mountain biking is all about including, without limitation, single track incredibly narrow roads, which you share with cars, vans and even buses. Roads that were cut from the mountain’s core back in the 1930s and left there unattended, unpaved, unguarded and un-everything elsed.
First to note about this leg is the cyclist must stay on the left and the vehicles get to pass on the right as I mentioned before. What’s wrong with this you ask? The precipice is on the left and when a bus tries to pass you on a single track road, you can only imagine what could happen and, in fact, has happened hence the name “Death Road”.
Moreover, waterfalls sprang from the crevices to dump water directly on Death Road making for a very slippery place to ride and near the place you never want it to be slippery i.e cliff side down some 3500 or more meters. The bike traffic itself increases along with the rocks and the potholes and other obstructions. In essence, it is the exact opposite of the road on the 1st leg and is, admittedly, not the safest place to travel particularly on a mountain bike. Having said all that, it was challenging. It was breathtaking. It was heart stopping and if you looked at her (the road) the wrong way, it could very well be punishable by death. And I, of course, absolutely loved it and so will you.
And the few times we got off the bikes, I was mesmerized by the stunning views. Even the valley below enticed me to take a peek or two over the edge as it will for you.
I have not forgetten the lives lost on this notorious stretch of road by any means, I assure you, and, neither will you, given the number of large crosses all along the way at the exact sites where vehicles and bikers have fallen to their deaths over the years; however, I am grateful that we didn’t lose any lives today.
While lives weren’t lost, there was certainly some bloodshed in our group. In fact, 3 out of 10 people in our group wrecked their bikes today and went home bruised and bleeding including Scott from Calgary, Luis from London and Marcus from Australia. We are rather lucky as all 3 of them went right into the mountain instead of left into the abyss. What does this tell you? Don’t get arrogant on either leg of the trip and wear your protective gear provided by Altitude. In other words, slow down and enjoy the beauty. Let go of the death grip on death road and relax and have some fun. This is not a race down the mountain and it is certainly not the time to try a wheelie or a flick.
Other than that, if you do get scared remember what I always say “It’s not bravery if you’re not scared.” And remember you can always dismount the bicycle if it becomes too challenging because the only failure I see, is one who is unwilling to even try.
So now you know what I mean by rode hard and put up wet! It will be a day you never forget!
That’s all for now so send your questions and comments if you have any and then go Unlock the Travelirvana in You.