Arse over tit: the Bolivian death road

Not had much to write home about since entering Bolivia. Everything has been going pretty well. The hostel, pedalos and sights in Copacabana were great. We enjoyed blood bombs, mountains, massive fruit salads and hangovers in La Paz. Let’s face it, it’s not interesting for you to read about me getting ice cream on my face or waking up at midday in a party hostel.

That was until my penultimate day in La Paz. We’ve booked ourselves onto a death road tour with a company called Barracuda. Despite previously saying we wouldn’t do it after my friend, Hannah, had a bad accident last year. We were persuaded by other travellers who had great experiences and decided to give it a go.
For those of you who don’t know about death road, its real name is Yungas Road and it connects La Paz to Corioco. In 1995 it was coined “the world’s most dangerous road” by the Inter-American Development Bank and there have been approximately 80,000 deaths since it opened in the 1930s (only 18 of them have been cyclists). It’s mostly gravel and it’s a bit tight for two passing buses, or even cars. The traffic has slowed since the new, paved road opened and mountain bike tours have been operating since the 1990s.

I get kitted out and we test the bikes. We go on a few km practice run downhill on the new road and I start off well. I have a good pace, or at least I’m not at the back anyway. There is a bunch of Brazilians who like being loud and fast; they go tearing off into the distance.

I come up to meet our group at the first photo point, where they have pulled over to the side of the road on gravel. That’s where I make my first mistake. I pull my breaks too hard and end up eating rocks. The guide quickly comes over to see if I’m ok, imitating an ambulance sound as he does, which was actually quite fun. Don’t worry; at this point I have nothing but a bruised ego and scratched Fitbit.

We start off again but I’ve lost my nerve. I start to think about how easy it must have been for Hannah to come off. And seeing as I’ve done it once, on the practice road, what am I going to be like on the actual death road?

I’m at the back, going slowly but the guide is with me all the way. I start to feel stupid about how scared I am and have a little cry before the next break point.

We finish the practice road and I’m feeling a bit crappy. I’m telling Alex that I won’t be able to do it. I grab a coffee (that comes in a sandwich bag with a straw) and settle on to the bus where we drive to the start point.

The start of the death road is covered in cloud because we’re so high. We’ve been told that there will be no cars on it because the road has been closed due to a landslide (like that’s the only reason they should need to close it).

Cycling down death road Bolivia

Cycling down Death Road, Bolivia

I start off a bit more confident, I’m going a bit faster and the group have regular breaks to gather together and take photos. It’s not easy riding off road and I’ve never really done it before but without the constant barrage of fast-moving traffic it seems to feel a little easier.

That’s when I go wrong for the second time. I’m coming up to a sharp corner and I must have lost my nerve a bit and pulled on the breaks too hard. I end up flying over the handlebars and the bike lands on top of me – literally arse over tit. Alex is behind and saw the whole thing, so stops to pull me up and check if I’m ok. Again, luckily I didn’t go over the edge and I have no broken bones, just a few bruises that ripen out to a great colour in the next few days.

The guide was behind me as well and saw what happened. He says that I’m sitting on the bike too high and insists to swap his bike with mine. After that I take it slowly, I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t care about being too slow for anyone else and I make it down the death road in one piece – getting a little bit faster as it starts to even out at the end.

Over the edge of Bolivia's Death Road

Over the edge of Bolivia’s Death Road

At the bottom a buffet lunch, swimming pool and plenty bottles of beer await us. We rid our nerves and adrenaline and head back to La Paz. All in all it was a great experience, and having done it once I would love to try it again to see if I’d be any better.

There are so many tours, like this and the Colca Canyon that are made out to be easy. The vibe around them is that anyone can just go and do it. To some people it is easy, maybe because they have practiced with mountain bikes or they have experience of trekking canyons. But I never have before and I just need to remember not to be too hard on myself.

Luckily for me, unlike my Colca Canyon story, we have great guides who remind me that I just need to do what makes me feel comfortable and we will all have a great time. The death road certainly isn’t a race.

The next tour we’re going on should be fairly easy – I mean, what’s difficult about climbing up and down dangerous silver mines at an altitude of 4,500m?

I’m ready for when we eventually arrive at the Bodega tours in Argentina. Drinking wine? Now, that I have experience in.

I’ve rewritten this article for Career Gappers, why not take a look!

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