We arrived in La Paz on a beautiful sunny day and were impressed with how warm it felt – being more than 4,000 metres above sea level and winter we had expected it to be pretty chilly!
Our hostel was right in the city centre, so we started our adventures in Bolivia by exploring its capital. Very soon we came across the infamous Mercado de las Brujas (Witches Market), full of odd smelling potions, herbs and dried llama foetuses.
Another thing you can’t fail to miss is all the tour companies nestled in amongst all the handicraft shops selling knitted clothing and leather bags. These companies sell everything from trips to see the salt flats and the Amazon, to dangerous-sounding cycling tours of Bolivia’s ‘Death Road’.
I was a bit unsure of whether I wanted to take on the Death Road or not. When I’d first heard about it, I was sure that – as a tourist attraction – the term ‘death road’ was a clever marketing tagline and that actually it was safe as houses. But on questioning fellow travellers on their own experiences of the road, each one had told me of different accidents that had happened during their tour – including someone who had fallen and rolled some way down the hill (luckily away from the edge), another who had badly broken their arm and one who told us of a guide that had inadvertently gone over the edge and died.
With even more research, I found that in fact the road claims the lives of 300 people a year and that the most recent death had happened just a few weeks before; a poor girl had slipped off the edge while trying to take a picture.
After a lot of careful deliberation, we decided that we should take the plunge because we would regret not trying it otherwise – and if it was too scary or dangerous we could always sit in the van instead…
That night, we went for what we felt might well be our last supper – a very tasty llama burger!
The next day, I was feeling a little terrified. The van picked us up and drove us to our starting point – 15,400 feet above sea level in a very chilly (but picturesque) car park nestled in the mountains.
Here we met our guides (Kenneth and Cello), changed into our cycling gear and tested out our bikes. Then, when we were ready, we took a deep breath and followed Kenneth to the start of the road.
This first part of the Death Road is the part that’s most used by vehicles. Fortunately, because of the early time of day it wasn’t busy and the smooth tarmac meant that we could relax and enjoy our ride down the hill while taking in the amazing scenery.
Although there were a few lorries about, the road was wide and I was starting to enjoy myself – whizzing down the hill through the frosty air.
Before we knew it, we’d finished the first section of the road and I was feeling much braver. Unfortunately, the next part would be the start of the real Death Road. Unlike the first half, this part is all very narrow dirt track coated with gravel and loose rocks. Some parts of the road are steep, and it winds and curves down around the side of the mountains with a sheer drop on one side – there’s also a distinct lack of barriers.
To make matters worse, the weather had turned and waves of thick fog seemed to appear from nowhere – curling around us and over the edge of the road – soon we could only see a few metres in front of us.
With the fog came rain; light at first, but getting harder as time went on. I secretly hoped that the guides would call off the rest of the ride. I searched their faces for flashes of concern when they looked around at the blank wall of white that surrounded us, but they didn’t seem worried at all. Instead they told us that, because the weather wasn’t ideal, we should keep close to the rock face but be wary of oncoming traffic as we would be travelling on the wrong side of the road.
We set off, one by one, disappearing into the swirling white mist. Even though no peddling was involved, this road was much harder to cycle on. The bike jolted and lurched down the rocky path, which was made slippery by the rain. Our bikes had excellent suspension, but the shock of bouncing down the jagged surface sent ricochets up my arms and legs.
The fog meant that we couldn’t see the sheer drop just to the left of us, but the crosses on the roadside we passed were a constant reminder of what could go wrong. Thankfully, our guides (and the van that followed) let us go as slowly as we (I) liked and we stopped very often for a break and for our bikes to be checked.
At one particularly slippery bit, where a waterfall crossed the road and cascaded down into the white oblivion beside us, I fell. The bike had slipped on the rocks and I’d slid to the side. Cello was there in a flash; ‘Are you ok? Are you hurt?’ – I was fine (luckily), but it was reassuring to have a guide there so quickly. After a quick check over (and a joke or two from Cello about wishing he’d had a camera at the ready), I was back on the road.
By the time we were nearing the end, I my legs and arms were getting tired from all the bouncing about and I was extremely relieved when we were told we’d made it.
Dripping wet and a bit sore, we made our way back to the van for our lift back to La Paz. It had been an experience – not one I’d want to repeat – but I did feel like I’d achieved something. I think Dale enjoyed it more than I did (I was mostly clinging on for dear life), but I am proud to have taken on the Death Road and survived.