Two people exploring the world, seeking adventure & unique experiences.
A couple of big milestones
We’d gotten lucky on timing and planned about a week in advance to do Bolivia’s Death Road for Toby’s 35th birthday (August 28th). This is certainly something that is completely In sync with Toby’s current lifestyle attitude. The other milestone depending on how you count it is the 1 year anniversary of the beginning of our trip. We departed Toronto (our then home of 3 years) towards Boston on Friday August 30th.
Puno to La Paz
You can do it cheaper (a few dollars) by using collectivos and taxis and changing several times, but it will take longer. There are two typical tourist options from Puno that all leave around 7.30am. The first is through Copacabana (20 soles / $7.15) and then onto La Paz with another bus. It’s popular for people to stop in Copacabana and do Lake Titicaca and Isla del Sol for a day or two. The second option that we took was a direct “Tour Peru” bus from Puno to La Paz (40 Soles / $14.30) that goes via the much less scenic border town of Desaguadero and takes just over 5 hours (plus 1 hour time change). Don’t forget you need to add on an hour for the time change going from Peru to Bolivia.
We arrived into La Paz around 1.15pm and went in search of lunch and a hostel. We settled on Hostel Isidoras at 110 Bs ($16) and near to the bus terminal (private room, shared bath, hot water, wifi & simple breakfast).
What is death road?
Death road “Camino de la Muerte” is the 69km north Yungas road from La Paz to Coroico. This road has been labelled the world’s most dangerous road due to the number of lives lost constructing the road and due to the amount of deaths on the road per year estimated at 200 to 300 (1996). In 2006 a new highway was completed, labelled the second most dangerous road in Bolivia, leaving death road predominately a tourist attraction for mountain bike enthusiasts.
The bike route starts at La Cumbre Pass at 4,650m and ends near the town of Coroico at 1,200m. The first 20km is on bitumen using mostly the new highway route. The remaining distance is spent on varying quality single lane dirt road with few guard rails and 1,000m sheer drops into the valley. This is not for any unexperienced tourist though because to date 18 tourists have died cycling this road.
Which tour company to go with?
There are many tour companies to go with in La Paz with varying group sizes, itineraries and costs. We did hear from other travellers along the way that sometimes cost cutting is not ideal as the equipment may not be all that great. Shop around and read reviews online, but do this in advance to save some time. We’d heard of Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking as others had used them. They are probably the most expensive tour out there, but their reputation is fairly solid.
A little bonus for us, thanks to our Canadian friends, we were able to use our farewell gift voucher from Viator to pay for the most of the tour.
We met at Oliver’s Tavern at 7.30am. Here we met Steve, our Australian/New Zealand guide who had been mountain biking for the last 10 years. We were a group of 15 people for the day, which is probably a bit too large. All the bikes didn’t even fit on the main bus so they used another smaller van for the rest. There was an additional Spanish guide and a photographer to assist us when we needed help. One of the people in our group had his shoes stolen from outside his hostel door the night before so we had a brief stop before we got to our starting point so he could buy something suitable to ride in.
Getting our gear
We would arrive at the car park departure point just after 9am. The staff immediately began laying out the gear including the bikes, helmets, gloves, jackets and pants. We were also given a dust scarf that we would get to keep as a souvenir. Take this to use in the mines at Potosi if you go there.
After a brief wardrobe change we got to test out our bikes. Rodora was extremely happy her bike wasn’t too big for her and she could touch the ground with her feet. We got to practice our gears and brakes in the car park (with the multiple other tour companies). Rodora was a bit confused on which lever was her back brake and which was the front; so she decided to get her brakes switched so she could access her back breaks with her right hand.
Then it was time to give our blessings to “Pachamama” (Mother Nature/Earth) to ensure our safety. This involved throwing a splash of sugar cane liquor on the ground, on our bike then in our mouths. Mmm, there’s nothing quite like doing a shot of alcohol just before we venture down the world’s most dangerous road.
Get on the road
It was now time to get on our bikes and ride our way down the road. Our van was always behind us in case we got tired and wanted a rest or some type of mechanical or medical issue to deal with. There was always a guide at the front and back of our large group and the photographer moved around depending on the scenario.
We descended down a twisting asphalt road where there were a few trucks, buses and cars that we needed to overtake or overtook us along the way. One of the guides helped Rodora overtake a few trucks as the one thing she was nervous of was trucks. Most vehicles would beep their horn a few times to warn they were coming, but this made Rodora nervous as you had to look behind if you wanted to know what it was.
We took a few breaks along the way so the group wasn’t too split up and to allow for some scenic photos.
Toby surprisingly wasn’t the fastest but was towards the start of the group. There were a few other very keen and qualified riders who took the lead spot most of the day. Toby was running his GPS app on his phone and across the 20km of asphalt there was an average speed of 35km/hr. The app also calculated a max speed of 53km/hr which is not bad considering these bikes had fat and knobbly tires.
Rodora, who admits she likes slow and steady was surprisingly not the slowest in the group and enjoyed the feeling of the wind against her face as she whizzed down the road.
At the end of the asphalt road section we would stop for a snack and to pay our entrance fee of 25 Bs each ($3.60). This is apparently used for general road maintenance and other safety improvements.
It’s at this point in time we would load the bikes onto the bus and get driven uphill to the beginning of the dirt section. A group of about 4 guys decided they wanted to ride the whole thing but gave up halfway as we collected them along the way. Downhill bikes are not designed to be ridden uphill for a long period of time.
Entrance to the real death road
We would finally reach the main attraction of the Death road at around 12pm, indicated by a sign “Welcome to death road”.
The thing that should catch your attention here is “Keep you left”. Consider that this is Latin America and in most, if not all countries, vehicles travel on the right hand side. This includes the current country of Bolivia. The main rule is downhill traffic must give way to uphill traffic and stay on the left hand side. The concept is that those coming downhill will have cut out spaces where they can give way on the left.
When it comes to loose rocks and gravel, the harder the terrain gets, the faster you should go to keep momentum otherwise you will be thrown off your bike. This works opposite to what your brain is thinking since when it’s smooth you want to go faster and when it was rough you want to slow down.
The other main rule was any major curves slow down and control speed and don’t fall off the cliff.
Time to hit the dirt road
It was finally time for mountain biking road. The first bit of the road was quite rough and because Rodora likes going slow she was nearly thrown off her bike every time she tried to brake. Realizing this was a mistake she picked up speed keeping an eye on the curves in the road and sheer drops below. Nervous at the start, her hands were shaking and she was a bit wobbly on her bike feeling every single uncomfortable rock. However, as her confidence improved, she gained speed, stood up on her bike and enjoyed the feeling of wind in her hair as she descended down the mountain.
Toby was really enjoying himself and just trying to find some space amongst the other riders. Riding at high speed at the edge of control is not a great time to find out one of your riding companions has a death wish, so space is a must. The first few kilometres would see speeds in the area of 30km/hr.
We stopped multiple times on the way (too many in Toby’s opinion), with our guide indicating the danger zones such as sharp turns and waterfalls. This at least allowed for many photo opportunities.
The stories of this road are known around the world with sheer drop offs. It’s funny how when you’re on a bike and riding down, you’re really just looking at the road immediately in front of you than the scenery off to the side. The road safety has been vastly improved with barriers at dangerous corners for example.
As we got lower in altitude, it became hotter and humid which made us continue to take our layers of clothing off. One of the best and probably most dangerous sections was when the road narrowed significantly and you had to ride under a few waterfalls. This was extremely terrifying for Rodora because if the bike slipped due to the wet muddy ground, you would fall down a cliff with no chance of survival. This also seemed like the area where quite a few deaths occurred indicated by multiple crosses on the side of the cliff.
There is also a famous spot called Postcard Point which you can see from the photo below how and why it got this name.
We also got to go through two river crossings. The first one, the whole group went through successfully without getting too wet. The second crossing was not so successful. The people at the start of the group didn’t pick up enough speed and ended up holding everyone else back resulting in most of our group getting stuck in the river.
Celebrating the end of the ride
We would say goodbye to our bikes at the end of the downhill section in a mini town setup with restaurants ready for thirsty and hungry riders. It was here where we would sample our first Bolivian beer called Paceña. Toby wasn’t a fan of it though and decided to sample the stout version and what has now become our favourite Bolivian beer named Judas (7%).
La Senda Verde – Reserva Ecologica
It was at this time that half the group would go ziplining (220Bs / $32) for an hour or two and the rest of us would go to the wildlife park. This was part of the tour and would include hot showers, towels followed by a buffet lunch/dinner. We were both highly excited by this buffet as it had lots of fresh vegetables and was all you could eat. It still surprises us and disappoints us just how few vegetables are served in a regular meal in Latin America considering how cheap they are.
The town of Coroico
The tour also has the option of paying for a taxi to take you to the nearby town of Coroico where you can stay and then pay for your own way back to La Paz. We’d brought our big packs on the bus with us with the intention of doing a trek in the area. The town itself is popular with tourists, both local and international, but is small at only around 3,500 people, perfect for us!
There were 5 of us in total from the group who would stay in Coroico that night. We agreed to meet up for a few drinks after checking into our respective hostels.
We would find a place called the Black Stube which had an amazing carrot cake (only 13Bs / $1.90), perfect to celebrate Toby’s birthday.
Three waterfall hike of Coroico
The next morning we would take a taxi (5Bs / $0.70 ea) to a waterfall about a 20-30 minute drive out of town. The concept then is to walk back to town and find the other two waterfalls and enjoy the scenery. We think this was perhaps overhyped as it really wasn’t all that great. The first waterfall required a 2Bs / $0.30 entrance fee to be paid. It was also meant to be a swimming hole, but as you can see from the photo, it really wasn’t all that appealing, so we skipped that part.
We were also quite disappointed about how dirty the area was with a lot of trash visible. We think if you’re paying a fee for something like this, the least you can do is clean the trash.
We then continued on the road back to Coroico where we found what must have been the second and third waterfalls. The first was visible from the road and was the only one worth looking at. This is where we were both charged 3Bs / $0.45 each to climb and go see “a more beautiful waterfall”. This really wasn’t the case. It was a tiny little thing with very little water and more trash. The photo makes it look nicer than what it was.
We would continue on the road back to Coroico in the hot afternoon sun and getting covered in dust by the many cars/taxis/buses frequenting the road. It wasn’t long until we grabbed a taxi (3Bs / $0.45ea) and took the easy way home. The bonus of the walk was some quite nice views, but with the traffic, it’s just not all that fun.
Climbing to the church and communication towers
Toby having cut the hike short; still had plenty of energy and went exploring the town. Toby walked to a viewpoint with a church and communication towers so as to get a great view back over the whole town perched on a hill.
Plenty more to explore. Keep following the blog and our Flickr account for updates. http://www.flickr.com/photos/toraadventure/