We survived the Death Road

Trip Start Apr 18, 2011
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Sunday, November 20, 2011

Having booked our Death Road experience with Overdose the previous day in La Paz, we were really looking forward to doing the must-do experience of La Paz. Overdose had showed us all of the gear we would be using and had informed us that we would be the only people on the tour. This meant we got a private guide who would take photos of us the entire way down, as well as advise us on safety matters and join us for the ride.

We were picked up at 6:30 from our hostel in our own private mini-bus, complete with guide, driver and drivers family. The start of the Death Road is around a 2 hour drive away from La Paz and it flew by. I don't know if this was because of tiredness or was because we were thinking about the 18 tourists that have died cycling down the road. We were informed that no Scots had ever died on the road, we were determined not to be the first! The most recent death was in June this year, a Japanese girl fell the road. We asked how this happened and the stories differ; the company she was with said that she was going too fast, while other people said that the brakes on her bike failed. Either way it was not the most comforting thought in our minds as we wound our way up from La Paz to La Cumbre, which is the start of the ride.

We arrived at La Cumbre and our driver whipped out a fold-away table for breakfast. Breakfast consisted of bread, butter and jam (the norm for Bolivia) as well as a wee cup of tea. Our guide busied himself by getting our bikes off of the top of the bus, and then he got us our gear out. We had by far the best equipment on the road, we started off with heavy motorcycle like trousers, along with knee pads on our bottom halves. This was followed by a lightweight t-shirt and then a motorcycle jacket, gloves and elbow pads. Finally we were given a full face motorcycle helmet, all in all we felt pretty safe and secure in our gear. Our bike was a full suspension Kona mountain bike, with big thick tyres and 21 gears (not that we used anywhere near that many). Our guide was called Julio, and before we set off we got a quick safety talk where he outlined the dos and don'ts (do - use breaks, don't - go over the edge).

And with that we were off, our 50km nearly all downhill ride had begun. It is actually the longest downhill descent in the world, with the starting point at 4,650ms and the finish line in Coroico at 1,200ms, making it a descent of 3,450ms over 20km of tarmac followed by 30km of the actual gravelly death road.

The first part of the road is tarmac and it is still a proper road, therefore we were sharing the road with buses, lorries, cars as well as at least another 50 cyclists doing the death road that day. We felt far superior to all the rest of the groups in their measly waterproof gear, as we zoomed down the tarmac in our motorcycle gear. We picked up some serious speed on these tarmac sections, as we thought we might as well go for it then while the chances of death were much less likely. There were points we were going so fast that we were actually overtaking some of the motorised traffic. We went through a police check point, paid our entrance fee to the death road and then we emerged onto the Death Road proper.

The Death Road is so called due to their being 200 deaths a year on the 30km stretch of road, mainly from buses falling over the edge of the very tight road. This was before a new road was built and completed in 2006, which then took on most of the motorised traffic and left the Death Road to adventure seekers like ourselves. There are far fewer deaths nowadays, but there is still some motorised traffic on occasion. There have been 18 tourists that have died since they started doing the Death Road ride way back in 1995. That's right, they were doing these rides 11 years before the new road was open, meaning you literally had to deal with not only death defying drops, but also lorries, trucks and cars, crazy. The road itself is maybe 10ft wide at best, and some of the drops off of the side are up to 100m.

We started our ride tentatively, heavy on the breaks and high on the concentration. Julio was excellent, stopping us every 10 minutes or so for photo breaks and to give our aching hands a rest. As we descended the temperatures started rising, so we shed layers numerous times on the way down. The views were spectacular, we could see the road winding down the valley, running along the edges of the mountains, carved into cliff-faces. We were concentrating so hard that the ride flew by, the road was gravel and dust and was extremely bumpy. It would not take much to have you over-breaking and spinning over the side.

We stopped around half-way down for a snack (cheese sandwich and coke) and Julio told us that we would soon be approaching the famous Death Corner. This has the largest drop-off, over 100ms, and has no safety barrier. He pointed it out to us, and told us that he would stay a little further along the road to take some photos. We made our way along, and got some great shots. I am the one holding my bike over my head, while Eilidh had hers up on the back wheel. We even managed to creep up to the edge and sit over it with our legs hanging over the side.

After Death Corner we were told that the most dangerous parts of the road were past, so we decided to go for it a bit more. The road was still definitely very dangerous, but we managed to pick up more speed and had a great second half of the ride. Once we neared the bottom we stopped for a water break and Julio explained to us that the region we were in was very good for coca growing, he even pointed out some coca crops that were growing nearby.

Once we had finished the ride we ended in a wee town that had a couple of bars. We had a beer and a Cuban cigar (I had picked this up at a Cuban restaurant we were at the night before) to celebrate our survival. After this we went to a hotel in Coroico for a buffet lunch and a dip in the pool, then we were packed back into our bus for the 3 hour ride back to La Paz. We arrived back, went to the Overdose office and picked up our "I survived the Death Road" t-shirt, awesome.

This was one of the most fun and unforgettable experiences of our trip thus far, it is not without risks but the rewards are even greater. If you want to get a better idea of what the road was like before the new road was open then here is a video of the Top Gear gang driving along it - LINK!

We now have a day or two in La Paz before moving onto our next stop, Sucre.

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