Bolivia’s ‘Death Road’ was carved into the canyonside in the 1930s. For over 60 years, it was the only road that connected the capital of La Paz high up in the mountains to the town of Coroico in the jungle beneath. With 35 miles of narrow rocky path with very few rails to temper the sheer drops at the side, it became known as the World’s Most Dangerous Road. In the 1990s, fatalities on the stretch were calculated at 200-300 every year. Like many backpackers, I had decided I wanted to hurl myself down it on a mountain bike.
My breakfast had taken longer than expected to prepare at the hostel, so I began the day rushing through the streets of La Paz to try and make the bus whilst also eating a sausage omelette out of a polystyrene box. Success on both counts. I made it to the bus just as it was due to depart and we made our way up and out through the gnarled streets of La Paz into the mountains above where I saw my first snow of the year (just in time for Christmas).
We arrived at the start – a barren landscape of snow and rock – and suited up for the ride. Then it was time for the offering to Pachamama (Mother Earth) to keep us safe. We stood in a circle, and passed around a small blue bottle of 96% alcohol. We each took it in turns to sprinkle some on the ground, some on our bikes, and to drink a tiny amount. When in Bolivia…
Our guide explained the first stage of the route to us. We would be cycling on tarmac to begin with, reaching speeds of 55-65kmph. Unfamiliar with the bike, I was terrified that I was going to fly off and end up not in the canyon beneath, but under the wheels of one of the huge cargo lorries that kept passing me, horns blaring. However, as the miles flew by and we glided round sweeping bends with views of the mountains all around us, I became more comfortable and really started to enjoy it.
After half an hour or so, the road splits. The new road takes the left fork, its smooth tarmac rising up back into the mountains to pass around them. The right fork is barely noticeable – an unassuming gravel track that slopes off away from the main road and appears to lead into the jungle. It could be mistaken as the track to a remote house or a small settlement, if it wasn’t for a small but significant yellow sign with two words on it: ‘Death Road’. And that’s where the real riding began.
We had a completely new briefing on how to handle the landslide-prone terrain. Our new route would be characterised by loose gravel, littered with big rocks known as babies’ heads (‘around the same size, and just as annoying’ quipped our guide) and even interrupted at times with a waterfall or two. Our mantra for the day was introduced: Trust the bike. Stand up, lean forwards, look ahead, relax, focus. Let the bike move around you. Don’t panic, go rigid, brake suddenly, fly over the handlebars and god knows where beyond.
Hearts in our throats, we climbed on and set off on our descent. The route was stunning. Regardless of the road’s reputation, it is a dramatically beautiful landscape with cascading waterfalls and lush jungle clinging to sheer drops. We stopped regularly to appreciate the views and hear stories of the roads’ history and its countless victims, many of whom are remembered along the way with plaques and crosses on the edge. Our guide told us about Timoteo, a man who lost his entire family to the road. He dedicated the next ten or so years to his life to ensuring that no-one would suffer their fate again, standing with homemade red and green paddles, ensuring that two cars did not meet head on at one of the narrowest stretches. He became know along the road for his constant presence and, although he was never paid, people would bring him food and supplies to thank him.
The deaths didn’t stop when the new road opened in 2006. Despite the new road being available, the old road – the ‘Death Road’ – is still a public road and access to it is entirely at the risk of anyone who wants to use it. Cars and lorries are less common nowadays, but mountain biking is incredibly popular. We passed one monument to an Israeli girl who tragically died when she fell from the edge whilst biking down it in 2010.
Our ride, fortunately, went without major incident. One girl in our group came off her bike in a particularly gravelly corner but luckily she was left with nothing more than a couple of scrapes. We finally reached the jungle town at the end of the ride, our last challenge to navigate the dogs and chickens ambling around in the road. We all breathed our sighs of relief and settled down with a cold beer to talk about our favourite and most hair raising moments.
It was one of the best things I’ve done in South America. Like the Inca Trail on steroids. Hurtling down the rocky roads made me feel a deep sense of awe for the landscape. The monuments along the way were reminders that we humans are far from invincible and that the natural world with its immense size and power deserves our respect. It also made me realise that my years of struggling uphill on my bike on my commute to work were totally pointless, and a legitimate sport exists that only involves the downhill. Mountain biking may have its newest recruit…