April 3, 2012

The Death Road

Just outside of La Paz, there’s a little road that’s become famous for downhill mountain biking. We’ve had this on our bucket list for at least a year and did our research to find a good outfitter to take us on the ride.

On the waiver where we essentially had to sign our lives away, the road is referred to as the “La Cumbre – Coroico Single Track”. More commonly it's known as “The World’s Most Dangerous Highway” or “The Death Road”.

The road used to be the only thoroughfare for trucks carrying fruit and vegetables from the agricultural Los Yungas region to La Paz. At its narrowest, the unpaved road is 3 meters or 9 feet wide. It’s estimated that 200 to 300 people died every year due to cars going over the edge…thus how it got its nickname. In 2006, an alternative paved road was built and the so The Death Road primarily became a mountain bike trail. In Bolivia, cars drive on the right-hand side…except for on The Death Road, where the cars get to take the mountain side and bikers have to take the cliff side. Here's an old Mitsubishi video:

We are both experienced road bikers and Steve has mountain biked for the past 15 years. On the other hand, I have never ridden a mountain bike in my life. Why would I choose this as my first mountain bike ride? I have no idea. It never even dawned on me until we were in the bus on our way up to start.

We started out at 15,420 feet on a fast asphalt road to get a feel for our bikes. They were quite good – Rocky Mountain full-suspension bikes with disc hydraulic brakes. After a fast warm-up period, we turned off the newly built road onto the gravel and rock laden “old road”. It took us 5 hours to descent the 40 miles of The Death Road. Every new turn uncovered a breathtaking view of the jungle valley, sheer cliffs, and waterfalls or river crossings to ride through.


When we were able to get perspective on the road from a high vantage point, it looked narrow and scary. But when we were actually riding the road, it really wasn’t that bad. On a scale of 1-10 (with 1 being easy and 10 being difficult), Steve rated the ride a 2. When I asked him to consider the cliffs, he bumped it up to a 2.5.

I obviously found it more challenging because I don’t have familiarity with what a mountain bike can handle. I was constantly focusing on the road in front of me making sure not to hit a gnarly rock which might throw my bike off balance. Even Steve admitted that the road was a lot more jarring than a normal mountain bike ride, and the constant bumps were my least favorite part.

Under the direction of our guide, Juan, we made it down safely and without any rain. I was so relieved.

We celebrated with some beers and then Juan and our support crew took us to a little retreat where we had lunch and went swimming. Afterwards, we left our group behind and caught a bus up to the tropical hillside town of Coroico, where we spent a couple days relaxing away from the bustle of La Paz.

There was a mix-up with our hostel reservation and we ended up with a 4-person bungalow set up in the trees. We had to climb up a ladder to get to the sleeping loft and we had our own private out-house with, oddly enough, a working shower.

Our first evening, the owner asked us if we wanted “smelly sticks” (aka incense). We took the sticks, which helped keep the bugs out of the bungalow, but it was too late. We counted that Steve has over 100 bug bites from sitting at the swimming pool earlier in the day. They’re just like mosquito bites, except that they turn really red and there are visible bite marks. We’re putting a serious dent into our tube of Benadryl.

The bungalow was so fantastic that we scrapped some of our hiking plans and did some hard-core relaxing in this beautiful tropical setting. How can you leave a bungalow with a view like this?

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