La Paz, Bolivia
01.12.2011 - 01.12.2011 18 °C
1st Dec 2011
Trapped in Sucre by road blockades, I decide to fly to La Paz. At the airport, I meet two Australian girls and an Irish guy who are all planning to stay at the Loki Hostel or the Wild Rover, where I have made a reservation. We share a taxi into town and on the way get talking about cycling the worlds most dangerous road: one of the must do activities here in La Paz. We decide to do it the next day, Friday, so that it is over and done with and we can have a few celebratory drinks in the evening. Mindful that we shouldn't cut corners on the cost of this activity, we opt to go with one of the most expensive but most reputable companies in La Paz. The decision is easy - there is a girl in our hostel with serious scratches all over her face who is in need of some expensive dental work after falling off her bike the day before. There's no law governing safety standards in Bolivia, so we are not taking any chances.
The next morning we meet our group for breakfast and set off. The starting point is an hours drive out of La Paz and roughly 4500m above sea level. As the bikes are being taken down from the roof rack, we are given padded clothing to keep us warm as there is snow on the ground. We get a one-on-one safety lesson and are shown how to use the bikes properly. The phrase "... or you will die" comes up a lot from the instructor. I don't know much about mountain biking, but I can tell these bikes are the real thing. The mechanic does a last minute safety check on every bike then we're ready to go.
The first stretch of the road is good: the road is busy and vehicles overtake at speed on blind corners, but the road is smooth and it provides the perfect conditions to get used to handling the bikes. We have 60kms to cover so this is where we get up some speed. The scenery is incredible, not that you dare look up much to enjoy it. To the right, by our side, there's a sheer drop to a bottom that cant be seen. Every now and then we pass a rusty overturned vehicle that is suspended half way down. We pull in regularly to admire the view and reform as a group. The braver fast ones are at the front, and the slower ones are at the back. There is at least one person who is terrified! I'm just ahead of the middle, giving the tail end of the fast group a run for their money.
We cycle a 8km stretch uphill and I´m given another lesson in mountain biking as I methodically move through the gears. Apparently this is the only company who gives passengers the option of cycling this part of the road. Not everyone makes it though, and they finish the stretch in the comfort of the safety vehicle. If that is true, I can proudly say that I'm one of only two girls to cycle the entire death road that day.
After sandwiches, we begin the hard part: complete gravel and very narrow. The only way to handle it is to have faith in the bike I´m using. We hurtle along the edge passing through waterfalls, landslips and car wrecks. We pull in to be shown the narrowest part of the road - literally just wide enough for the axis of a small Bolivian car - and tragically the site of the last cycling fatality and the biggest accident in Bolivia when a bus load of commuters came off the road.
The road continues on with dramatic cliff faces at either side. We descend from snow capped mountain tops into lush green, stifling tropical jungle. At the bottom, a river, a beer, a BBQ and some friendly monkeys await. We congratulate ourselves on completing the road, with only one injury amongst the group: an American who flew off on a tight corner. His wounds were well dressed by the first aiders at the scene, but the vets at the monkey sanctuary sew up his gash.
At the end of the day, we load up the bikes and jump in the support vehicles. We head back up the road. I'm not sure what is scarier - being on the bike or in the minibus. We have picked up some alcohol so we have a little celebratory party as we head back. We stop for photos on the narrowest stretch, opening the side door to look down on to a sheer drop. The wheel is about 5 cms from the edge - thank goodness our driver does this every day.
The next day I'm chatting to a girl in my dorm who tells me that she cycled down death road two weeks ago and fell off the edge...! Apparently she went down 20ms or so before managing to grab hold of a branch. Luckily she only suffered some nasty bruising... I´m glad I heard that story after I´d completed it and not before...