The Death Road

The Plan

  1. Cross the border on the first tourist bus I’d ever caught, complete with an English speaking stewardess who would tell us which stamp to get and where, and all whilst the bus waited for us to complete the formalities.
  2. Get food with a couple I met on the island hopping tour whilst marvelling at the price of cocktails and the fact that Bolivian wine ain’t half bad.
  3. Get cheap accommodation in a place that’d let me crash in their unfurnished top floor on a random mattress with no bed stand for Bs. 15 (bolivianos) a night.
  4. Get a beer and chill out as the light faded.
  5. Get an early night for for a two day trip to Isla del Sol the next day, the supposed birthplace of Inti, the Inca sun god.

The Actuality

  1. Crossed border as above.
  2. Got food and did indeed marvel at prices and the fact that the wine didn’t strip my gullet or draw my gums back over my teeth.
  3. Got my top floor mattress thankyouverymuch but they probably should have told me the toilet didn’t work before I offloaded breakfast through the back door.
  4. Got my beer. I’m good at things like that.
  5. Met Joffa and Narelle, an Aussie couple in South America for their honeymoon, and proceeded to drink copious amounts of cheap Black Russians until the sun rose, kissed goodbye to any thoughts of going to anything resembling an island, birthplace of an Inca deity or not and settled on heading to La Paz instead with my new mates. Yep, I think I’m gonna like it here.
A perfectly good van laded with transportation devices created by the devil himself.

So here I am in La Paz, a couple of days earlier than expected and missing a few brain cells. Might as well do some stuff. There are two inescapable facts in this life. The first one is, you are going to die. I’m sorry but there it is, there’s no way around it, at some point you’re gonna kark it and there’s fuck all you can do about it. The second is, Claire doesn’t do cycling. Kind of ironic then that the second of these facts was audaciously disputed on a road in Bolivia ominously known as the Death Road. Insert involuntary shudder here.

Pretty around these parts, isn’t it?

Out of the plethora of tour companies to choose from we decided on Vertigo on account of the fact they got good reviews off other backpackers, their gear looked good, I was liking the sound of a full face helmet to protect my perfect features in the likely event that I fall off the bike and unlike Gravity who would have otherwise been the first choice, they didn’t want payment of two limbs; one from the upper body and one from the lower. Vertigo aren’t the cheapest, but Gravity were just that little bit too much.

The obligatory “how not to die on a bicycle” briefing.

Joffa was joining us but not Narelle because her leg hurt on account of a hilarious story involving Joffa trying to pet a bull and the bull not taking too kindly to it, and I’d also bumped into Patrick and Allyson, an Irish brother/sister duo I’d met on the first night in Colca Canyon. Vertigo leave about an hour later than all the other groups. We were told why but I don’t recall the reason and nor do I care, the longer I get to spend in bed the better, I am NOT a morning person and the later start allowed me to consume the requisite four cups of tea needed in order for me to function at a level that could be considered human.

One of many group photos we took a little bit too close to the edge for comfort.

The usual tour routine was followed, we were picked up and bundled into a van and met our guide, Cello. Like the instrument. He’s a piss taker, a fabulous guide and the most amusing guide I’ve ever had, and I’ve been on a lot of tours. But so far so good. The van climbed out of La Paz, through the narcotics check point and up to La Cumbre which, at 4700 m.a.s.l. was the highest part of the tour. Pretty fucking high then, and really fucking cold! We braced ourselves against the wind as we were handed elbow and knee pads, gloves, fluro jackets, trousers to protect against wind and water, a helmet and a bike.

At least if you did plummet to your death you’d have a nice view whilst you were doing it.

It’s always a mission when I’m assigned a helmet, I have a really tiny head and more often than not kids’ helmets fit me. It’s not my fault I’m highly evolved and all my vast knowledge is compacted into a smaller brain thus eliminating any space wastage with that large percent of the brain that people don’t use. You’d think they’d take us greater mortals into consideration when making safety gear. *flicks now somewhat lengthy hair*

They literally had to pad the smallest helmet they had with newspaper so it stayed put on my head.

So after a tour of the bike it was time to go. Oh shit. Fucking shit shit. What in all hell had I let myself in for? What was I doing? There are reasons I don’t do cycling, reasons to do with my balance or lack thereof and the fact that me and bicycles have a long and deep-seated feud going back years because they are instruments of evil created by the devil himself. But I bravely straddled my bike… sort of… oh bugger. I also have little legs and I couldn’t touch the floor properly. I looked at my seat to see if I could lower it before settling for whimpering pathetically until Patrick lowered it for me, as far as it would go. There. Perfect. Now at least I could get something resembling balance before I pushed off to my doom.

The first part of the 63km ride is a sealed road but this is Bolivia and just because it’s covered in tarmac it doesn’t make it any less terrifying when you’re seated on a tiny piece of metal being overtaken by vehicles four times your size. I couldn’t even use my patented “if I close my eyes it’ll go away” technique on account of the risk, nay, certainty of death if I did. Down we went, me and two other girls taking up the rear as I clung onto my handlebars for dear life, keeping two fingers over each brake as we’d been advised to do. Not that there was any certainty I’d remember to use the two fingers if the need arose but hey, at least I looked the part with the gloves hiding the stark white colour my knuckles had undoubtedly gone. Most of it is freewheeling with a bit of pedalling to get your speed up, not that I thought I’d want to get my speed up. But as we descended I realised I was doing it. I was cycling and you know what? I was fucking LOVING it!

I mean, as roads go, it doesn’t even pretend to be even a little bit safe. Imagine trying to get down here in a car or a bus as other traffic comes the other way.

We passed the checkpoint where we were to pay Bs. 25 for entry to the road and made it to a police checkpoint where we were loaded back into the van to save us pedalling 8kms up a hill. This was it then, the start of the unsealed road. Vertigo fed us up good and proper with sandwiches, crisps, chocolate and carbonated beverages and we were off again into the fog for the ride of a lifetime.

I am actually smiling underneath that face guard.

For the majority of the ride I was in the middle, I couldn’t keep up with the boys in front but I wasn’t bringing up the rear with the girls and I was having a great time. The scenery is spectacular and where the fog cleared you could see into the ravine that had claimed so many lives thus earning Camino de las Yungas the title of the World’s Most Dangerous Road. We stopped for plenty of breaks and photos and as we descended further and further the temperature rose; we were heading into tropical Bolivia.

Our guides.

Every stop warranted the shedding of more clothes until we rounded one corner and it was like cycling into an oven. I was down to shorts and t-shirt as I cycled along, freewheeling past Gravity who’d stopped for a break until suddenly the road started to level out and my bike slowed down. I had to work to keep it going then the road start to slope up and I had to really pedal. Erm, hang on, actual pedalling? Excuse me? I didn’t sign up for this. I slogged along, flicking gears, trying to work out which one was the best until I saw the guys from my group ahead. Fuck this pedalling bollocks then. I got off and pushed my bike the rest of the way where we waited for the rest of our group to catch up. My arse was killing me.

This is probably my favourite photo of the trip. Again though, probably a little bit too close to the edge for comfort.

The final bit was downhill all the way to a little bar at 1200 m.a.s.l. Beer! Cold, delicious beer! In toasty, tropical temperatures! Then it was back in the van to a small place with a pool, but most people didn’t opt for swimming in on account of the dubious colour, and a mean buffet feed.
I have to admit, I loved the trip apart from the bit where pedalling was necessary. I’m pretty chuffed with myself for doing it an all considering that me and cycling have never really got on since I discovered there were other ways to get around such as buses and later on, driving. But just because I did it this once and just because I’ll admit to having a good time don’t go thinking I’ll be making a habit of it. No way. That space in the garage where most people keep their bikes will always be home to the beer fridge.

Bonus photo: Another stupid thing I did in La Paz was attempted “The World’s Most Dangerous Vindaloo” at the Star Of India in La Paz. It’s a proper sweaty-eyeball job conjured from chillis farmed in the foothills of Hell, and if nothing else it’ll clear your sinuses as well as melt your frontal lobe so it drips out through your nasal passages. The things I’ll do for a souvenir t-shirt.

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La Paz, Bolivia
Stayed at: Wild Rover, La Paz
Activity: The Death Road with Vertigo Biking

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