Death Road is one of Bolivia’s biggest draws, and people travelling in this other-worldly country will often ask each other if they’ve already done it, and ,if not, if they plan to. Death Road, or ‘el Camino de la Muerte’, is a stony track which winds around a mountainside outside the city of La Paz, and was the main way of getting through the mountains until the new, slightly less hair-raising road, which actually has space for two cars to pass each other, was built.
Death Road doesn’t see much traffic these days, although you may still come face to face with a vehicle driven by someone whose home is somewhere along this death-defying track. What the road does see a lot of, however, is cyclists. Dozens of tour companies in La Paz offer the Death Road experience, and there are varying prices. A more expensive tour generally equates to better quality equipment and protective clothing, and some tours will charge less for a bike with less suspension, and more for bikes with all the trimmings.
Once you’ve chosen your tour company, you’ll be picked up early in the morning by a minibus that will take you up to the start of the Death Road adventure. I was there in April, so at the start of the Bolivian winter. Temperatures plummeted as we headed out of the city and wound our way up to the mountaintop, where the snow meant that we had to drive a little further down before we could start the adventure. You’re kitted out in your full body suit and hop on your bike and given a chance to get a feel for it whilst still safely on the tarmac of the new road. Here you’ll come across the other groups that are doing the same adventure that day, but you’ll quickly spread out once you hit Death Road itself.
Snow turned to sleet for us and my fingers froze to the bone, but you quickly lose altitude meaning you aren’t too cold for too long. After a while, you hop back on the minibus and are taken to the start of the gravelly track that is Death Road, which is just as terrifying as they say. At the edge of a track wide enough for just one car, there is nothing between you and a sheer drop of hundreds of metres into the mist of the valley below. Some of the more gung-ho group members on our trip went at break-neck speed from the word go, not letting the stones under their wheels or the waterfalls that were spraying down onto their heads from above phase them. I, personally, took it a little more slowly, finding my feet and staying well away from the edge.
The van followed behind the group to keep an eye on us all, but as we got further down the path the twists and turns meant that I was often all on my own with the mountain, waterfalls, mist and birdsong. After I’d got over the terror of falling, it was incredibly peaceful to be rolling down the mountain, enjoying my own company. The further you get into the four-hour descent, the less precipitous the drop, and the more courageous I became. The group stops now and again to check everyone is present and correct, and by the end, I was at the front with the best of them, the adrenaline coursing through my veins, determined to be one of the first at the bottom of the mountain, celebratory drink in hand.
You skid into the village at the bottom of Death Road completely elated and utterly exhausted. Having been in the snow just hours before, arriving in a tropical valley full of palm trees where you can sit around in a t-shirt is an incredibly surreal feeling. A few little bars and restaurants at the bottom are happy to serve you up a celebratory bottle of something, and it seems churlish to refuse although it’s only 1 in the afternoon. Once everyone’s present and correct, you’re whisked off for a buffet lunch somewhere nearby, to refuel and gradually come down from your high.
After a couple of hours, it’s back in the van and back over the mountains, thankfully via the new road rather than back up the Camino de la Muerte. Having come from the tropical valley and going back through the snow will play tricks on your mind, and make sure you’re well wrapped up so those sweaty clothes don’t turn to ice as the wind whistles through the cracks around the doors.
Back in La Paz, after a well-deserved shower, you’re sure to sleep like a baby, dreaming of your surreal day cycling through the seasons and dicing with death.