"Cycle the Death Road." The very name may make some question the sanity in going on such a tour. For others it will draw them like a moth to a flame. We weren’t quite in the moth category but that was mainly down to the price of the tour. For a day tour, not to mention for Bolivia, a tour on the death road is a little pricey. But then, how can you go to La Paz and not give it a go?
OK, if you’re really not too stable on two wheels then perhaps you should stay in the city and visit some museums. But otherwise you have to do it.
Firstly, some statistics on the road itself. In recent times the road has become almost solely for the use of silly foreigners like us to bomb down, plus the odd coca farmer. But before this it used to be a frequently used road. Here are the statistics (and how it got its name).
- Built in the 1930s by Paraguayan prisoners
- 43 mile road - rocky and mostly downhill
- The road got christened because 200-300 people died a year
- 1983 saw Bolivia's worst road accident when a bus went off the cliff killing 100 people.
Pretty terrible hey? But although these statistics are in the past, the road still lives up to its name and claimed the odd Israeli who took a corner too fast or the Canadian who hit a large rock at speed.
At the start point, some 4,700m above sea level I was terrified. Not for my own safety but for that of the Japanese guy in front of me. The tour starts off with some downhill on good smooth tarmac to get everyone used to their bikes. But within thirty seconds the Japanese guy was wobbling about all over the place and almost came off altogether. He did the same again just a couple of minutes later. We hadn’t even arrived at the rocky Death Road part of the trip. With discipline I stayed behind him keeping the order of our group of four. By overtaking I was concerned he may try to go faster.
With our guide on a bike out in front and a support vehicle behind, we started the death road. Japanese guy seemed to have got used to his bike and maintained a speed he was comfortable with and I became less worried that the road would be claiming another victim.
If the terrifyingly narrow sections of rocky track and the sheer cliff hanging drop do not take your breath away, the stunning scenery will. We would stop every fifteen minutes or so, either for a snack, a long look at a view or for the support vehicle driver to set up a video of us further ahead. Our guide, who was fun and entertaining, would explain the upcoming section and where to show a bit more caution, although he never seemed to alter his speed throughout the entire journey!
If the road is not dangerous enough already, there are parts of it where the side on which you pass oncoming traffic reverses! I thought our guide was joking, but no, because the cliff edge is not on the driver's side, on the narrow sections, vehicles pass on the other side so that the driver can look down to make sure the wheels are kept on the ground. Whatever works best, I guess!
I’m happy to report that all four of us, Japanese guy included, made it down to the bottom unscathed. Our reward was a buffet lunch, a shower and use of a swimming pool. As we had descended to around 1000m, the climate had become sub-tropical. It was warm and there was many a biting insect to greet us. Repellent should have been on the equipment list.
As with most dangerous activities, if you survive them, you finish up with an incredible uplifting feeling that makes you feel all the more alive.