The Highest Capital in the World and Death Road

Trip Start Apr 08, 2012
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18
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Trip End Sep 25, 2012


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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Saturday, June 23, 2012

Biking Death Road was never originally in my itinerary. I'm not particularly fond of mountain biking and it hadn't really come up anywhere in my research.
But after talking to several people that had done it I learned that the route is 95% downhill, 4% flat, and 1% uphill.
Well, I could manage that, I thought.

But when I arrived in La Paz I was coughing uncontrollably and my throat felt like it was on fire. So even if I would be exerting myself hardly at all I wasn't sure I would be able to do it. I could barely breathe as it was, so pedaling for even the shortest amount of time was sure to make me pass out.

But I really wanted to do it now, so I booked before I could think better of it and woke up early the next morning.

We drove up to 4700 m (15 400 ft) where we put on all our gear. I felt like I was getting on a motorcycle rather than a mountain bike. The equipment includes padded trousers and jacket, knee and elbow guards, gloves, and a motorcycle helmet.
 
The first 22 km were on the paved road - not Death Road yet. This was mainly to get the feel of the bike so we weren't just thrown onto the most dangerous road in the world and told to go.

Another thing that had worried me a bit was the fact that the last time I was on a bike was 6 years ago and it was on the streets of Jackson.
But luckily riding a bike is, well, like riding a bike. My ability to manoeuvre and control came back to me immediately.

We got back in the vehicle to go past the police check point where they are "checking for drugs" and then drove to the top of Death Road.
A note about the effectiveness of the police here. While driving anywhere in rural Bolivia it's impossible to not see all the cocaine being grown all over the mountainsides. It's legal to grow because of the use of coca leaves for tea but, let's be honest, that's not all it's used for. And obviously the police know this.
Not that this is anymore blatant than most countries and corruption. It's just annoying that when you ride/drive past these policemen they all glare at you like you are the problem here. That "I'm watching you" look, "better steer clear of my cocaine."

   

Anyway, it was raining slightly by the time we got to the top of Death Road and the valleys and mountains around us were covered in thick cloud.
This meant that the sheer cliffs to either side were only visible for about 20 metres before disappearing into the mist. 
Someone made the joke that at least if you go off the edge you won't know exactly how far you still need to go to hit the ground.
 
Some said the clouds and the not knowing made it worse but I never felt afraid. Even when one guy stopped about half a metre from the edge because he tried to take a corner too quickly.


 
Cars are a completely different story, but on a bike you have to be a complete moron to go off the edge. On average, 3 people die a year while biking down this road. Our guide told us stories of two of his clients that had gone off the edge during his tenure.
 
The first: a couple were arguing because he wanted to go faster but she wanted to take it slower. So the guy went off in a huff, going faster, and of course she tried to follow, took a corner too quickly and slid straight off the edge. (How bad must that guy feel?)
 
The second: the chain on a guy's bike broke and he looked down to see what had happened and rode right off the cliff. He actually survived though; he fell about 80 metres and managed to get nothing more than a laceration. The bike wasn't so lucky though.

But as I said before, vehicles are completely different (and again I'll say, watch the Top Gear Bolivia Special).
This road used to be the main thoroughfare between the jungle in the north and La Paz and there is a reason it's not longer used by cars anymore (though they are still allowed). The new paved road was only built three years ago however so Death Road is littered with crosses and flowers as its name suggests.
On average, 400 people a year died from going off the edge in a vehicle.
This is a gravel and stone road, one lane wide with rare pull-outs when the mountain allows. It was used by buses, trucks, cars, and any other type of vehicle you might find on a Bolivian road (which are not too different from those you might find on a South African road).
 
Since we were going down the road, to our left was the very steep mountainside down to the bottom of the valley (I don't know how far, I was never able to see) and to our right was a sheer cliff rising up to the top in the clouds.
There are several waterfalls along the way that pour straight onto the road so there are deep holes that were, when I went, filled with muddy water that we splashed our way through. 
I don't think wet gravel is anymore difficult to keep control on than dry gravel though, so other than getting covered in mud this was fine.

There are no guard rails (the new road has some though which is quite a luxury) and the road is literally on the edge, so if you're in a car and your tyre gets too close to the edge (which it will because there is no space) then the rocks will crumble and it would take only a second longer of staying there to collapse the wall and fall to your death.
 
Our guide told us the most recent vehicle death was a group of guys that were drunk and wanted to tell all their friends that they drove down Death Road.
But they never got to because they flew off the cliff.
 
And while that was idiocy at its best, it wouldn't be difficult to fall while driving. Which is why being on a bike is a massive advantage. And entire lane is a lot of space for two skinny wheels.

But because you are riding on loose gravel it is necessary to go slower than you would on a smooth paved road and take corners even more carefully. 
But as long as you aren't trying to show off or push yourself or someone else to go faster, you will survive just fine.

Some people I spoke to were completely terrified the whole ride and went as slow as the vehicle that follows the group. But the most terrifying moment I had was when I was pedaling up a slight uphill and had a cough attack. I could hardly breathe anyway and I felt like I was suffocating.
But luckily, as I mentioned before, the uphill is hardly a factor and I was able to catch my breath again on the downhill.
 
We finished at about 1400 m (4600 ft) which is a crazy descent of 3300 m (10 800 ft) in less than five hours.
I'm not a big fan of heights, and while the clouds may explain this, I was never scared of flying off the edge. The only time I was in danger of falling was when my foot slipped forward on the pedal and caught the road. But that's just a typical biking danger and nothing about Death Road itself.
So if you're scared of heights, just stick to the inside of the road and don't be an idiot.

*Note: I took none of these photos, the guides took them all. I left my camera in the vehicle because I didn't quite trust myself not to break it.

 

 

People say that you either love Bolivia or hate it.

My first experience with Bolivia was a closed border post at noon, so I was about neutral to begin with.
Not long after that I was forced to change my plans because of a bus company on strike. 
And of course, the day after that my backpack was stolen.
I was affected by two more strikes that same week, one forcing me to catch a taxi for 30 km and the next making me catch the train to Uyuni instead of the bus.
I dealt with all of this. Travelling is never straightforward and it's guaranteed to be affected by random things and make necessary changes and that's fine.
But the problem I have is why there are so many strikes.
 
What really forced this annoyance into me was on Death Road. There was a large group of people walking up the road protesting "against the government" (that's really the only answer I ever got).
Only a handful of people were actually carrying signs or banners and less than half were people that actually could have known what the hell they were walking for. These people included children hanging off their mother's hands or infants being carried on backs. 
But the most irritating group of people were the white tourists. Surely if protests and strikes are such a thing in a country that it's an "experience" to join in, something is wrong.
And I really can't see what's wrong with this country. Other than the strikes.
There is no war here, there are no rebels or paramilitary groups which is a lot more than can be said for several of the countries on this continent and others. The drug trade is here yes, but it's not violent and police get money out of it (but really, what country isn't at least this corrupt?).
 
So the reason that Bolivia is on the bottom of my return-to list is not because I was inconvenienced but why I was.
It's almost like the people of Bolivia are just bored and looking for something to argue about. Maybe I'm missing something, but this seems like a perfectly peaceful country with far fewer problems than most.

Of course Bolivia has similar problems to South Africa with the mines. The wages are barely livable while the owners glory in their wealth from their warm offices.
I guess I will never understand strikes. Maybe the main purpose is to bring attention (national or international) to issues like this because by themselves they don't solve anything. I suppose pressure can change things.


Now this isn't all to say that Bolivia is just the worst country in the world and don't go. There are some truly remarkable things here like the fact that you can go into the Amazon jungle in the north and then go into the driest and highest desert in the world in the south and they are only about 1000 km away from one another. And Death Road is definitely something I'm glad I did.
I'm just saying, I can't quite understand why people love Bolivia beyond the tourist attractions because I've found nothing in the people to recommend it.
 





 


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