Dicing with death on the World’s Most Dangerous Road

25 Sep

The Most Dangerous Road in the World stretches 61 kilometres from La Paz to Coroico and descends over 3,000 metres from spell-binding Andean mountains drenched in snow, to lush sub-tropical hills covered in rich forests and dotted with waterfalls. This stretch of unpaved dirt track earned its name by taking the most lives (annually around one hundred) of any road in the world. A newly opened bypass has significantly reduced the flow of traffic on the Death Road and the number of fatalities has been drastically reduced but the fearsome reputation of the road remains as strong as ever. In places the road is little more than three metres wide with sheer drops one side plunging up to six hundred metres below and vertical walls of rock on the other.

When we learnt it was possible to cycle the Death Road, we knew we had to do it, despite our knowledge that since 1998, eighteen cyclists have lost their lives here, losing control of their bikes on the bumpy and slippery gravel and crashing over the edge of the precipice. Once again on this trip, we felt like rabbits caught in headlights as we handed over our money (450 Bolivianos – 65 USD per person) and put our lives on the line.

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There are numerous agencies offering the Death Road bike ride and prices can vary widely. In our opinion it’s not necessary to go for the most expensive company but maybe think twice before going for rock bottom prices as perhaps these companies won’t offer the best equipment or maybe their bikes aren’t serviced as regularly as they should be. Although this is primarily a fun and safe activity, accidents and deaths do occur. We asked around for other backpackers opinions and checked internet reviews and opted for a mid-price company called ‘Vertigo’ who we were 100% satisfied with.

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We met outside the agency at 8.30am as our bikes were being loaded onto the roof of the minivan. We’d tried on our equipment (helmets with full face-guards, water-resistant trousers and jackets, knee and arm pads) the previous day to make sure everything fitted well and we would put on our attire once we reached the start of the ride. There were around fifteen of us doing the ride with Vertigo and three guides (one for every five people), so once we’d loaded up two minivans we set off and drove around an hour out of the city. The starting point for the bike ride was the village of La Cumbra with an elevation of 4,700 metres above sea level.

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The tour groups (five in total) gathered around a beautiful lake surrounded by snowbound spires.

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As we waited for the bikes to be unloaded Dan and I climbed a small hill and looked down the valley at the first part of the trail we’d be faced with. The initial descent is on a paved road with two lanes of traffic. The road wound and looped around the mountains, passing icefalls and spectacular mountain scenery.

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We wondered how we would ever keep our eyes on the road! The traffic road was quiet but every now and again a lorry or a bus would go hurtling past and we suspected we’d need nerves of steel not to swerve out of control.

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Back at the bus the bikes had been laid out in size order and the equipment was provided with our names on. We formed a line in height order and picked up the appropriate bike.

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A few adjustments to the bike and some practicing on flat ground and we were good to go. We took a few group pictures and tried not to let our nervousness show through.

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The guides explained that one guide would always go at the front, one in the middle and one at the rear. We would follow one of our minivans and another would stay behind so if anyone wanted to stop at any point, they could.

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Myself and some of the other ladies on the trip weren’t as confident as the daredevil boys who were psyching themselves up to go as fast as they could, so we were pleased to be told it wasn’t a race and just to take our time and enjoy.

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The different groups all set off at staggered times so there was plenty of space on the road ahead. The first few pedals felt surreal but we soon got into our stride.

The guides explained that the first part of the ride would take roughly 1.5 hours and would all be downhill so it was possible to freewheel all of the way. This section would be easy on our legs but our hands may become a little sore from braking. The first part of the ride was not actually part of the ‘Death Road’ proper but it wouldn’t be a walk in the park and it would give us an opportunity to get used to the bikes.

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The clear blue skies had started to cloud over and a layer of mist was fast descending around us. We still saw glimpses of the magnificent mountains and deep valleys filled with yellow Andean grass and frozen waterfalls.

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We picked up a really good pace and grinned like lunatics through our face guards as the guides stopped to take action shots of us. Most cars would give us a wide berth but every now and again a lorry would pass a little too close for comfort and scare us silly by honking their horns.

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The guides stopped us regularly to check we were all still together and to explain a little about the next section of road – whether it was especially steep or curved. The further down the road we sped, the lower the clouds became until we were completely surrounded by them and a fine drizzle soaked us.

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The bikes skidded a little on corners but in general we were relieved to find the tyres gripped the tarmac and the brakes were very responsive – always good to know before hitting the Death Road!

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When we reached our first long tunnel the guides directed us to a gravel path going around the outside and we all had our first taste of off-roading. Our growing confidence was quashed as we bumped and twisted on the bikes and at times struggled to hold a straight line. The next part of our journey was going to be nail-biting.

We stopped for lunch at a small village and we were well catered for with sandwiches, crisps, biscuits, fruit and fizzy drinks. We drove a small 5 kilometre uphill section of the highway and got out of the van at the start of the Death Road.

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The clouds were still all around us so initially we couldn’t see what lay ahead but we all walked around with nervous energy as our gear was unloaded. More team pictures in various poses were taken along the edge of a sheer drop and our guide was especially fond of the Usain Bolt pose.

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Then, quite suddenly, the clouds started to lift and we were given the first glimpse of what we’d let ourselves in for. To the untrained eye the road may not have been obvious at first as in places it was only 3 metres wide and it hugged the curves of the mountains shrouded in dense green vegetation. In many places the drops from the road looked vertical and we could see places where parts of the road had eroded and crumbled to the valley below.

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Our guide explained that the rules on this road were different to other parts of Bolivia in that traffic drives on the left instead of the right. We absorbed that information slowly and with a sinking feeling we realised we’d be cycling right next to the edge. Fortunately for us, the road is far less busy than it used to be thanks to the construction of the bypass which takes a little longer but offers a much bigger guarantee of arriving at your destination safely. However, some drivers still choose to take the Death Road as it’s around 30 minutes quicker than the newer one. Shortly after hearing this we watched a small mini bus bump and grind its way down the upper section of the road and seeing that nearly three-quarters of the road was taken up, we prayed that we wouldn’t meet anything bigger.

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We all took a deep breath, made sure our helmets were securely fastened and started turning our pedals steadily. Breaking all of the road rules immediately, we rode on the right hand side as far away from the edge as possible and we hoped that the leading guide would warn us of any vehicles coming up the other way. The men in our group soon got into their stride and scared us women who rode at a snail’s pace at the back as we watched them speed around corners and in places race to overtake one another. By the time our hearts had returned to a normal beat and our hands had stopped sweating, the clouds had lifted and we could start admiring the views. A blanket of green trees and exotic plants filled the surrounding countryside and stretched right down to the valley below. Creepers and ferns also hung down from the high rock walls to our right.

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The air had become really humid and we started to feel warm for the first time during the day in our layers of clothes, and were ready to strip some off at the next stop. Because the descent is so long, we started the morning with the temperatures hovering around zero degrees and finished the afternoon in a much more appealing 25 degrees. Fortunately, as we had the minivans with us, any clothes we shed went in there.

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Around 10 minutes into our ride we met our first car coming uphill and pulled over to the left hand side at a convenient stopping point to let it past. We had our first close up look at the edge and sheer drop and felt a small dose of vertigo coming on. The small car was packed with far more people than we’d imagined possible – three in the front, including the driver and five in the back. They all looked very amused to see us and we waved politely.

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We couldn’t resist asking our guide about recent accidents on the road and he divulged that only the month before a group of three young men had been returning from a weekend of partying at a town lower down the valley, misjudged a bend and toppled to their deaths.

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The whole group stopped regularly along the trail to give everyone a chance to catch up, rest a little and to take some group pictures.

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Our first stop was at a jaw-dropping corner where the road seemed to simply run out at a bend. The guides were very imaginative with the photographs and helped us to stand our bikes up on one wheel and to hold them above our heads.

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The photograph of all of us consisted of us dangling our feet over the edge of the precipice and waving our arms in the air. We all looked like octogenarians getting in and out of position, preferring not to take a tumble!

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Just as we finished the group shots a huge monster truck pulled around the corner towards us.

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The truck took up nearly all of the road and we had to stand with our backs and bikes pressed firmly against the cliff wall just to let it past. A local lady in traditional clothes carrying a goat in her arms sat in the passenger seat alongside the macho driver. They both smiled and the driver tooted his horn but to us the truck looked remarkably precarious and we stared back with worried expressions. Once the plumes of dark smoke following the truck had passed we rode on.

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The road was full of pot holes, some large rocks and some sandy lose scree, but it wasn’t worse than many of the off-road tracks we’d been on during our trip. The characteristic that made it frightening was the vertical drop with no barrier and the rough rock cliff wall that would leave you looking pretty ugly if you rode into it. Along the route it’s still possible to see in places the wreckage of cars that have crashed to the valley floor and crumpled into nothing more than a metal box. Seeing this made the group very quiet as we contemplated the awful final few moments of these people’s lives.

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The further down the road we cycled, the more wildlife we found and we had to work hard not to be distracted by beautiful large butterflies with blue patterns on their wings, and dainty humming birds sipping nectar from vibrant flowers.

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We stopped for some drinks and snacks (included in the tour price) at a wider section of the road big enough to park the two minivans and host the fifteen of us. We could see all the way own the valley where the sun was shining bright. A memorial with Hebrew writing had been built on the edge of the road and we learnt that this was a father’s tribute to a beloved daughter who had lost her life just before this point just a few years earlier. The father had insisted on travelling out to see the site himself and had the memorial built to remember his daughter’s life. Our group sat on the memorial steps and had our picture taken which felt a little ghoulish but the guides wanted to encourage us to think about how special life is and how cruelly it can be taken away without notice. We all agreed how important it is to live life to the full, as if each day were the last.

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The guides pointed to the next section of the road, which for many is the most terrifying! Here it’s necessary to cope not only with the rough, potholed road, the birdseye view of the stomach churning drop and the bulging and the unstable looking cliff face – here we also had to deal with waterfalls cascading directly onto the road from high above.

It was going to take all of our powers of concentration to pass this slippery section of road whilst getting wet ourselves. Just as we were starting to lose our nerve, we heard a deep growl coming from further down the road and then a huge lorry came into sight crawling up the steep, narrow section, with its wheels just inches from the edge and the body of the lorry almost scraping along the rocks.

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We held our breath and as the driver made it through the waterfall section safely we let out a small cheer and felt renewed confidence that if this long distance warrior could do it and then so could we.

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It was remarkably good fun riding our bikes through the waterfalls and the shower was really refreshing.

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The excellent double suspension and responsive brakes on our bikes meant we were able to handle any bumps and skids with ease.

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The guides, who were excellent and brought lots of high energy and confidence to the day, gave everyone high fives and congratulated us all for safely passing this difficult section. After this point the road widened slightly and the drops weren’t quite so vertical. A thick layer of bushes and shrubs now grew on the edge of the road and humorously our guide’s advice if we went over the edge now was to try to grab onto the plants or a vine and hang there until they could pull us back up! Oh, so simple!

We cruised down the next section of road with renewed spirit and bravery. It seemed like we’d won the respect of the road and it was working with us allowing us to take corners smoothly and skip over clusters of rocks.

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Small dilapidated farm houses punctuated the road lower down. Indigenous locals sat by the roadside, whiling the time away, would smile and wave as we passed. When we were just 5 minutes away from our final destination we took a small break at a scenic viewing point and caught our breath.

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The high adrenaline and the small matter of covering all those kilometres on a bike in one day, albeit mostly downhill, had left us all feeling pretty tired. One of the guides laid out on a bench and started to nod off.

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Our bikes and our bodies were covered in mud and we had already started fantasising about a hot shower, a cold beer and a hearty late lunch.

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We took a side road from here and rode down a steep and occasionally challenging series of unpaved switchbacks. The foliage either side of the path was overgrown with verdant greenery and it was necessary to think ‘thin’ thoughts to squeeze through small gaps. The minivans were waiting for us at the bottom of the track and after we’d helped to load the bikes onto the roof we flopped into our seats with our bodies feeling as heavy as a sack of potatoes. It was only 10 minutes drive to a small rustic hotel where we stopped for nearly 2 hours to relax, swim in the pool and gorge ourselves on a tasty buffet lunch.

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We hugged our guides and thanked them for helping us make it down the Death Road in one piece. For them this is simply their day job (crazy!) but for us it was a one in a lifetime experience we’d always remember.

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