This has to be one of the best things I’ve ever done. Ever. What an exhilarating day! Beforehand, I was bricking it, and if it wasn’t for travelling with the girls too, I’m not sure if me and Sam would’ve definitely done it, but I’m so glad we did.
The Road was given it’s name in an Inter-American Development Bank report, back in the noughties, due to the number of casualties on the road – an average of 26 vehicles disappeared off the edge annually. In 2007 they opened a new road (now the main road between La Paz and Coroico) but the old road remains open for both bikers and some cars and trucks that still choose to use it. The road is pretty narrow – averaging about 3 metres wide, mostly bumpy gravel and big rocks in places, and for the most part, with no barriers, and a sheer vertical 3000m drop off the side, with plenty of hairpin bends to keep you on your toes!
Stopping for a photo-opp on the edge of a sheer drop!
We went with a great company called Barracuda, and they made sure we were all safe and that our spirits remained high throughout the day. We got a mini bus up to the start of the trail, and learnt about its history – both how it got its moniker but also how it was built by war slaves during the Bolivian war with Paraguay. Our guides (who rode with us all day) told us about their own experiences of the road, and were bringing some flowers to lay down for some of their friends (also guides) who died on the road in accidents. Pretty sobering! And a bit scary.
When we got there, we all got given our bikes which had individual names (so we didn’t get them mixed up) and we were taken through how the gears and brakes worked. The brakes are INSANELY sensitive, and there’s a ton of suspension built into the bikes, so we practiced bouncing around on them and breaking gently on the gravel. We then assembled in a circle, and were talked through the first stretch of the Road, and did a joint blessing or ‘challa’, where the guides passed around a bottle of 95% rubbing alcohol, and we ‘blessed’ our bike by pouring some on the wheel, blessed ‘pachamama’ (mother earth) by pouring it on the ground, then ourselves, by taking a shot! It burned like a bitch, but also warmed the stomach and got us all giggly and fired up. After a quick group shot with ‘llama hands’ (a bit like the heavy metal hand symbol!) we hit the road.
Panic-inducing group briefing to kick things off…
The first part of the journey was madness! It was still tarmac (and part of the new road), so there was a fair few trucks and buses on the road, as we weaved our way down the bendy hills. Kind of like a real life game of Mario Kart! We’d been taught how to go faster with an ‘aerodynamic’ pose (leaning right forward) and I got a taste for the speed, leaning right down and overtaking a few people within the first few minutes (Sam informs me I overtook on a bend a few times, which probably wasn’t wise given there was extreme mist!) The weather was mad for the first half hour – mist, rain, wind, fog… and by the end of the tarmac portion of the road, I could barely see the massive lorries that were approaching me until they were right there (and I couldn’t really see anyone in front of me). From what we could see of the scenery though, it was totally stunning. Kind of like cycling through a misty Macchu Picchu, with huge green ridged mountains emerging out of the fog.
Beautiful semi-tropical surroundings near the end…
At the very end of the tarmac road, there was a tunnel that bikers can no longer go through (for safety reasons) so we got our first taste of off-road, detouring around the tunnel on a narrow bit of gravel. I was amazed by how much shock the bikes could absorb, as I cycled over huge boulders but didn’t feel like the bike was going to fall off any time soon.
Thick misty fog as we descended…
The next part of the road was uphill, so we all piled back on the bus (the guides put our bikes back on the roof) and we had a little lunch break of sandwiches, crisps and coke, before we got onto the real old-school gravelly Death Road! Once we all piled out and a had a chance to marvel at the views, take photos etc. we were given another pep talk about the rules of the road. Given the fact that it was very much a one-way situation, and there were only occasionally lay-bys for any passing traffic, we were told to stay on the OUTSIDE of the path. I.e., right by the sheer vertical drop! It didn’t end up being a big deal, because the only traffic for most of it was our buses going down, and other bikers, so we stayed on the left where we could.
In short, the ride was AMAZING. What had been a big rush of going fast downhill on tarmac with cars, was translated into a personal voyage of beautiful surroundings, pushing limits, and a huge rush of adrenalin. At first, we’d stop every 5-10 minutes to regroup, make sure everyone was ok, take the classic photos of us on the edge of the road, us holding our bikes, us riding under waterfalls etc… (and the guides made photos and videos as we went) but once we were about halfway through, we stopped for chocolate and bananas, then were told we’d have longer stretches without breaks. These were amazing, and probably my favourite, because you’d be cycling down huge hills, around crazy bends, through insane scenery, beautiful countryside.. and you wouldn’t see anyone else for ages. You could push it as hard as you want, try fast corners where you just bend the bike right down to the ground, or stop and take pictures, completely undisturbed. It felt like flying through your own tropical paradise, completely alone.
There were some pretty cool parts of the journey, like huge waterfall streams to go through after steep hills, and big gravestone crosses in the most dangerous parts, with flowers for those who’ve died doing it. Our guides told us they do it at night time in the dark sometimes with torches on. Why?! Madness.
Towards the end, it got really hot, as we’d descended over 3000m, so we stripped off our cycling trousers and rolled up our big hefty jacket sleeves, and had to drink a LOT more water (especially as we hit some flats, which felt more like uphills given the altitude and heat!) We also passed a local school and farm, and met some cute local kids.
Finally we stopped in a tiny little town, where we all high-fived our guides, and where we finished the ride with a cold beer an a lunch of salad and spag bol and we got given our souvenir t-shirts to prove we had survived! There was a river to swim in, but it was super rocky and with a very strong current so me and Sam went for a tentative dip, but managed to get bitten by a load of horse flies, so not too successful!
We’d booked ahead to stay in a nearby Eco-lodge that India had been recommended, so after watching through the photos and videos of the day together (the guides put them on a TV!) and seeing the number of times Sam had stacked it (little to our knowledge, as he was further back in the group) we got a taxi further up into the mountains into the semi-tropical town of Coroico, for some much-needed R+R…