“We have 100 meters of safety rope for Death Road. So don’t fall more than that…”
Biking down the Death Road in Bolivia. It sounded like a bunch of overhyped hooha or yet another venture catering to adrenaline-hungry tourists on the gringo trail. Yet, there it was on TripAdvisor as the #2 attraction in La Paz. And on every advertisement in central La Paz. And a central topic of conversation during our time in Uyuni.
Yungas Road is a rather daunting, cliff-hugging road just northeast of La Paz. The full ride— be it in a car, bus, or bike— involves a descent of around 3,600 meters over 64 kilometers of both paved and unpaved road. I could care less about biking the road. Maybe because of fear. Maybe because of my lack of interest in long-term biking. But Robbie was all about it. And I wasn’t about to let him roll off a cliff without me.
A wee bit of morbid history
Historically, it’s true. The Death Road or Camino de la Muerte is no laughing matter of a byway. It was built by Paraguayan prisoners in the 1930s and once was the only road connecting the capital of La Paz to the north. During the 1980s, the road claimed about 300 lives per year thanks to its hairpin turns, landslides, narrow passes, and tendency for drivers to be inebriated after partying in La Paz.
One of the most famous incidents happened in 1983 when a bus careened off a cliff and sent about 100 people to their death. This was supposedly thanks to a couple’s dispute between the driver and his wife. The guide pointed where the bus went over. It’s resting with about 200 other vehicles, all of which are rotting at the bottom. The bodies have been pulled out (Bolivia is a Catholic country… and one full of vultures), but the vehicles are still there, hidden under the growth.
The Death Road was also temporary home to Klaus Barbie, otherwise known as the “Butcher of Lyon.” He was the notorious Nazi responsible for the deaths of about 14,000 Jews and who also helped take down revolutionary Che Guevara. He hung out in a yellow house on Death Road for several years before being extradited to France. I passed his house in silence but managed to make eyeballs with its squatters.
Money was eventually put toward the road’s safety, leading to numerous guard rails and a new paved road in 2007— sort of parallel— to the most dangerous section. Despite the hype garnered by tourists and tabloids, “the world’s most dangerous road” (as deemed in 1995 by the Inter-American Development Bank) is not such anymore.
That being said, the paved and unpaved parts of Death Road remain mucho peligroso. A Google search won’t find you much in terms of recent incidents, but they exist. There was the Land Cruiser accident in 2008 that killed a British bicyclist in the first two kilometers of the road. You can actually see the shell of the bus down in the ravine. As you travel along the road, you’ll also come across numerous crosses and memorials— spanning the decades, long after safety measures were made. Our tour guide noted that just two weeks ago, a female German biker went over the edge. But in true Hollywood style, she grabbed on to some vegetation as she fell and was able to be pulled out by said 100 meters of safety rope. Yikes.
In order to pacify our better judgement, we went with the leading company in the Death Road business (there’s about 30 to choose from): Gravity. Gravity charges a shit ton more and for good reason. Safety is their middle name. For example, they spend big bucks on their bikes, which are eventually passed down to the cheaper companies. We also spent what felt like 15 hours discussing safety measures before, during, and after the ride. You’d have to be a bonehead to die on Death Road (that is, unless someone or thing ran you down). I felt comforted… despite the mandatory waiver which excused them if I plummeted to my death.
Another perk of Gravity is their post service. After surviving (preview: not all of us made it to the end), it is only the Gravity group that heads to La Senda Verde animal refuge. Here, you can enjoy a hot shower. Buffet dinner. Booze. And a f*&$in capybara.
You can read all about the details on logistics on other blogs (Joy and Journey; Globetrotter Girls), so let’s get on to the biking. I was fit for a bike— aptly named Barbie Girl for her size (and strength?). Layers were layered. Test drive was had. We set out, me forgetting to be nervous despite Bolivian traffic. The fact that we were riding on the same side as the cliffs. Other tour group members who acted like kamikaze fighters. The wind. The cold. There was plenty to fear.
But the tour guides kept emphasizing that we needed to trust our bikes. So I did. I trusted Barbie Girl and abided by all of their warnings. And I found the ride incredibly comfortable. And relaxing. After all, the scenery was spectacular. Steep cliffs with clouds rolling in and out. Waterfalls magically appearing and baptizing you as you pass under them. Tiny villages. Cholitas. We weren’t really advised to turn to look at things we passed but I couldn’t help it. I felt calm and in control… for once in my damn life. Maybe it was the balls I picked up during sandboarding or something. But then that promptly went to shit.
The Death Road claims its victims
“‘How many people fall?’ Robbie asked. ‘Only the idiots,’ was the reply…”
According to Gravity, they go weeks without an incident. “How many people fall?” Robbie asked. “Only the idiots,” was the reply…” Must have been our lucky day then. Maybe we didn’t bless our bikes with sufficient alcohol beforehand. Maybe the Road Gods were feeling cheeky that day. Maybe Darwin had a point. Either way, our sacrifices multiplied with each kilometer.
We started with 21.
One of Gravity’s safety measures is to space us out, about a bus length. So unlike the jackasses on other tours flying down the road in clusters, surprising our team by not announcing they were passing, we were a bit more cautious.
Which was good. Because just a few kilometers into the ride, the biker directly in front of me violently crashed.
He was trying to avoid one of those tiny reflective lane markers. This didn’t go well at our speed. He slammed on his breaks and flipped headfirst. Thankfully, my first aid training didn’t do shit for me and I stared stupidly at him as Robbie took control. Nicely done, Tam. Our first victim suffered a stupendous cut above his eye and was taken away in an ambulance to check for head trauma. A guide left with him to help with translation. And then there was 19.
On the gravel part of the Death Road, an Australian women fell off her bike for the third time. The first because her water bottle slipped from her pocket and rolled under her wheel. The second because her chain popped off. The third because she aimed at a pothole. During this last adventure, she broke her wrist in two places. She was taken away in an ambulance (mind you, the second of only two ambulances available in the area). A guide went with her. And then there 17.
But of course, there were other falls, cuts, and bruises. Thankfully, the only thing I suffered from was a sore bum from biking and a dry throat from the elevation change.
But at least I got my T-shirt
“Surviving is mostly inevitable. It’s staying on the bike that proves to be the challenge…”
Another Gravity bonus is the T-shirt you get for “surviving” the experience. In my personal opinion, I think surviving is mostly inevitable. It’s staying on the bike that proves to be the challenge. So I won at that. For whatever reason. I do have newfound respect for a road, one that I knew little to nothing about before arriving in Bolivia. And the trip turned out to be a history lesson, more so than a topic for future pissing contests.
As we all sat around post-biked slurping spaghetti— squeaky clean and mentally exhausted from concentrating on not dying— I had a thought. Has traveling become so easy that the very notion of traveling isn’t risky enough? If I have to bike down Death Road to get the same high as I used to 10 years (when a Smartphone couldn’t track my location or offer me security), what will travel be like in the next decade?
Death Road. On ice. Check out the video from our Death Road trip below: