Updated May 29th, 2017.
I wasn’t planning to do it, not even when a friend who travelled South America last year gave it her highest recommendation. She’s a rider. She likes riding. She has a necklace with a bicycle charm and rides across the city for lunch dates. Me? I avoid riding wherever possible, particularly anywhere there’s traffic. I’m a cruiser. Biking around vineyards, around the flat Netherlands, around my home town of 2,000 people – fine. Riding downhill, on the World’s Most Dangerous Road? Never.
The Camino de la Muerte, or Death Road, winds over 60km between La Paz and Coroico, Bolivia. It was formerly the main road for traffic, and many a bus fell victim to its severe bends and unforgiving drops. A new road was built in 2006, and now only the occasional motorbike and hundreds of crazy tourists looking for a thrill brave the hairpins.
I was all set to leave my partner to do it alone while I took the bus to Coroico. But little by little, my resolve was worn down. Rider friend informed us that as the road was formerly used for traffic it’s always wide enough to fit a bus, and inexperienced riders have no problems. A jittery Canadian we met in the Amazon sealed the deal – she said she had been “freaking out” before she took to the road, but that as long as you went at your own pace, it was “totally fine”. Well, said I. Part of the adventure is doing things that scare us, stepping out of our comfort zone. And the scenery is meant to be fantastic. So, when we got back to La Paz, I wrote my name down along with my partner’s to head off the next day.
There are many companies who take riders out, and I would add my voice to those who caution: make sure you have a good bike. We went with Altitude Biking, and I paid the bit extra for the Transition, a bike with longer suspension, while my partner paid less for a Kona – supposedly the same, only shorter suspension so you feel the bumps. Altitude picked us up very punctually at 7.15am, and the next forty minutes were spent swapping traveller tales with the six others in the minivan. Once we got to the top of the trail we met the rest: about twenty riders, but we weren’t phased by the big group. As Altitude had explained to us, a guide is present for every five riders, so the more riders you have the more guides there are to help you out.
It was foggy and it was cold, so we layered up as instructed and had our first of multiple provided snacks. Then it was time to gear up. Never have I felt so hardcore – all of us in our matching Altitude pants and jacket, knee pads, elbow pads and an open motorbike helmet. Pro. We were also provided with gloves, but as these weren’t at all warm I tried to stuff them over my fleece-lined pair. I only managed to do so with one, and wearing the Altitude glove rather than the warm glove on the other hand turned out to be a mistake.
The guides were taking pictures we could later access on social media or by picking up our own CD. This was definitely a good idea, as it left us free to enjoy(?) the ride, without worrying about stopping for pictures (which can potentially be dangerous, although not as dangerous as not stopping when you take pictures). We lined up along the bitumen road, and our head guide Julio told us this first section does have traffic, so to be very careful. I covered my butterflies with a grin, ecstatic that I’d met two other girls planning to go slowly. They were my buddies, I said, but it turned out buddies were almost impossible: you must always ride single file, and preferably at your own pace.
We were off! It was a very wide and smooth road, but lots of bends, and the fog meant there were sections you couldn’t see off the cliff just metres to your right. Plus there were cars overtaking us (scary) and trucks and mini vans along the road we had to overtake (even scarier). Once a bus passed just half a metre from me. I was so focused on not panicking I was too afraid to even turn my head, so once all the riders spread out I found myself totally alone. It was me, the bike, and the mountain. I was terrified I’d missed the first stop, but still too afraid to turn my head, so just kept going.
Every now and then a guide would overtake me, then drop back, or help me overtake a minivan, which was very comforting. It was so cold in this section (apparently it snows fairly often) that my hands were both numb and throbbing at the same time, particularly the one without the warm glove. We went through a mini shower and got very wet, making it hard to see through my sunglasses, but I made it to the first stop (turns out a girl had been behind me the whole time if I’d only looked), very relieved. Lots of blowing on hands and twitching fingers ensued, in an attempt to coax back some circulation.
After this first bitumen section we had to ride down a rocky path to avoid a tunnel. This really was scary, for the rocks were slippery after the rain and I gasped as my bike skidded a couple of times. But then it was time to get back in the bus, and I was proud of my efforts so far. However, I informed my partner that if the path had been rocky like that the whole way, I wouldn’t have come. Which turned out to be an awkward statement, because when we arrived at the road proper (I hadn’t realised that first section wasn’t even part of the original Death Road), we saw it was a dirt track, and very rocky. “Will it be like this the whole way?” I asked timidly, and when Julio replied in the affirmative I swallowed heavily.
NO ONE HAD TOLD ME. Not ONE of the people who’d talked about the Death Road had mentioned how rocky it was. Sure, we knew it was on the edge of a cliff, and very windy, but rocky as well? I felt stupid – of course it wouldn’t be smooth and paved the whole way. But I had not expected this. Peter, an avid rider from New Zealand (who would arrive to the bottom first), told me just to go at my own pace, not lose control. So that’s exactly what I did – that first section I took slowly, and I was terrified. It’s impossible to explain, unless you have done that kind of mountain biking before, how much the bike shudders and jolts from the bumps, how sore it makes your hands (fingers constantly poised on the brakes), how it feels to be flying down with no way of stopping! (And I wasn’t exactly flying. I was second last again). I was not happy.
When we reached our next stop, Julio told those of us at the back to try to go faster, as it would hurt our hands less. Not bloody likely, I thought. But I did try, and the second section… I was loving it! I was getting the hang of the bike, which really could take any bumps, of avoiding big rocks without swerving, of slowing down on the corners but speeding up on the straights. I overtook multiple people, and all of a sudden it was fun. Particularly when we reached the stop where we could drink straight from a waterfall: looking up at the top of the cliff you could see water shimmering in the air, a cascade of vapour. Looking over the edge all was green forest and mountains. It was beautiful.
Unfortunately, the majority of the ride you can’t look at the scenery as you can’t take your eyes off the road. I’ll spare you the details of the next two hours, but the joy didn’t last: I was afraid about 70% of the time, and every time the bike skidded a little I was even more anxious. I was constantly engaging in self-talk, willing myself to keep it together and not fall: “Keep a straight line, that’s right, through the middle there, slow down slow down, it’s OK, it’s OK, you must be almost at the next stop…” In the most difficult parts, where rather than dirt track with rocks it was a rock track that was extremely bumpy and causing my teeth to rattle, I stopped talking to myself and instead breathed out loudly like I was in labour. I generally had to take the corners very wide, ending up on the other side of the road, and once a motorbike was forced to pass me on the wrong side – Sorryyyyyy! I can’t stop!
We finally got to the half hour flat ride we’d been told about and were rewarded with water and energy drinks – but it wasn’t the end. The last section was much narrower and the most difficult (and thus required the most self-talk and labour-breathing). But we made it, and I managed to stay in the third quarter of the group, which satisfied my competitive nature. But as Julio said – this is no contest. The most important thing is safety, he informed us gravely, and he’s just happy when everyone makes it in one piece. Now that we had done so, he told us about deaths on the road – when it had traffic it was around 100 per year with the buses going off the edge, but now it was more like one.
This year there had been two already – a motorbike rider earlier in the year, and a French girl who lost control and went over the edge (the story went she was taking a selfie). What aren’t talked about so much are the accidents that don’t involve death, which are far more common – coming off the bike at any point would not be pretty. So it is not an innocuous ride, by any means, but if you take it cautiously, you should be alright.
Our tour finished at a nearby hotel, with a late buffet lunch and an hour or so to swim and relax around the pool – a very nice touch, as we’d gone from freezing fog at the top to humid heat at the bottom.I was exhausted, and sore all over, but happy to have made it. For experienced riders, the path is a thrill, and for the intermediate it should pose no problems. For those like me, who can ride a bike (duh) but aren’t very confident – go informed. The scenery is stunning, the tour is great, and the ride is rewarding – but it’s not easy, and it’s not always fun. I’m glad I did it, but put it this way – I don’t think I’ll go downhill riding again.
About the Writer:
Alice Walker is a travel addict who has visited more countries than she’s had birthdays. Her latest adventure was 3.5 months around Chile, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, but she’s now back in Melbourne to write a Literature/French thesis and executive produce community radio. You can read some of her work with Madrid-based The Bo Review of Human Arts or check out Art Smitten and on SYN radio.