El Camino de la Muerte, Death Road in English, actually owes its name to the ten thousand Paraguayan prisoners of war who died in its construction in the 1930s. However, it has been claiming lives ever since. It used to be the main route from La Paz to the tropical Yungas and the Amazon region, although it is now mostly used by suicidal cyclists. With steep drops below and waterfalls cascading from above, not to mention a width of barely four metres, this is a challenging bike ride that could best be described as a vertical descent down the edge of a cliff with added obstacles. Should someone with a fear of heights and speed even attempt this? Of course not! Do I suffer from these fears and did I do it? Yes, yes and I survived.
Early morning at Oliver’s Tavern
I went with Gravity Assisted, the most established group offering this activity. See details below.
The day starts at 7 am at Oliver’s Tavern where we register and supposedly have the opportunity to have a final breakfast before taking on the Death Road challenge. In fact, given the crowd, breakfast is a takeaway affair in this case. From there, our guides shepherd us to the minibuses that take us high into the Andean peaks outside La Paz. Arriving at a lake in the desolate high plateau we disembark and start our preparations. Gravity puts a premium on safety and our guides, Ansel and Willy, kit us out and give us the first of many safety briefings.
The first part of the road is asphalt and I now make a few horrifying discoveries. The gradient is steep all the way down. Also, the bike speeds up incredibly each time I take my hands off the brakes. I am aware of the dramatic scenery around me, but my focus is on the road and on the brakes. However, I am careful not to jam on either the front or the back brakes as I know that this might remodel my face or body in ways that I do not care to imagine. Visions of skidding along the road or going over the edge fill my mind.
This section of the road takes us through the barren mountainous landscape of the high plateau and it lasts a full twenty-two kilometres. By the end, my hands are cramping and my backside is starting to feel as if I have spent an evening in San Pedro Prison in La Paz.
However, the journey must go on. We reach a place where we have to pay a special tax for the upkeep of the road. Exhausted and aching all over, I pay the tax, lose my ticket and have to pay the tax yet again. We now take the bus up to the start of the Death Road proper, snacking and chatting on the way up. A zigzagging vertical dirt track appears on the mountain opposite us. Surely, this can not be the road…Thankfully, it is not, but the real road is not exactly that much of an improvement. The gradient is still vertical, but now there is the added pleasure of rocks of all sizes beneath and streams falling from above.
On Death Road…
Down we go! My fingers are still holding tight on the brakes, no matter how hard the guides try to get me to let go. I am either the last or second to last to finish each stage, but I hardly care as I am determined to finish this…in one piece! At one point we come to a particularly large drop where everyone sits on the edge of a cliff for a photo opportunity. My vertigo kicks in and I sit behind the group for the photo. Why would someone with a fear of heights do this bike ride? Some things in life defy all logic.
The descent continues, getting warmer and more humid as the mountains turn to shades of deep green. I notice the beauty of the luxuriant vegetation, but my focus is still on the road, particularly as it narrows unpredictably at times with steep drops underneath. At a stop, the guide informs us that we are now on the final two-kilometre section. Furthermore, should we do nothing stupid, he will buy us all a beer in Yolosa. We reach the end in a little village, park our bikes, enter a glorified shack and finally it is time for that beer. We have cycled fifty-four kilometres on somewhat challenging surfaces. Better yet, none of us have even suffered a scratch (lots of credit due to Gravity and our guides).
Lunch at La Senda Verde nature reserve follows our celebratory beer. We share our life stories and our travel tales. Then, it is time for the long bus ride back to La Paz, which gives us the opportunity the truly perilous state of the road. We stop at the narrowest point, a mere three and a half metres, and look in awe at the seventy-metre drop beneath. We each receive a t-shirt showing that we had survived Death Road. Yeah, been there and truly EARNED the t-shirt. Take a look at the video below…
Gravity Assisted (Mountain biking)
Tel: 591 2 2310218 Cell: 591 77208356
Gravity Assisted will transport light luggage and there is the option to stay for a few days in subtropical Coroico at the end of your bike ride. Despite only being a short distance from La Paz, many travellers rave about Los Yungas, the region between La Paz and the Amazon. Some hardy souls even take the bus journey from there to Rurrenabaque, the gateway to the Bolivian Amazon.