Death road: Experience and thrills at your own risks and perils

Most of the following day, I spent on formalities: doing the theft declaration with the police – for an insurance which, in the end, I never used – and trying to find a phone company selling mini sim cards for iPhone. I tried several places, until a guy managed to sell me a normal card, telling me I should find a place where they had a special machine to cut it to mini sim. I had seen it in Uruguay, so it didn’t seem that strange and I bought a card from him. Then I spent the rest of the day trying to find the goddamn machine in every possible place. Unfortunately, it was in vain. And I can’t say that most shop keepers were really helpful. When I asked, they just looked up, said “no” and forgot about me. Each additional question seemed to be an annoyance. So after an unfruitful two hours, I just dropped the quest – I realized a few days later that I actually just could cut the sim card to the right size with a pair of scissors. Still, the sim card didn’t work – and I decided to complete my third and final mission of the day: making a reservation to do a bike trip on the death road. I can’t remember when I heard about this road for the first time but I almost instantly knew that I wanted to do this. A bit strange considering that I have never been very stable on two wheels and learned to ride a bicycle when I was 11 when most kids manage to do this when they’re around 5.

The death road is considered the most dangerous road in the world. It is between 60 and 70 km long and leads from La Paz to Coroico. In 2006 one estimate stated that 200 to 300 travellers were killed yearly along the road. Reason for this is that it is not properly set out for motorized transit, as it looks much more like a hiking path than an actual road. The pavement consists of soil and stones. It is very narrow, allowing passage for only one vehicle at a time. It ascends to 4650 meters before descending to 1,200 meters with cliffs up to 600 meters deep along the road. The road gets slippery when it’s rainy. The visibility can be hampered by the fog. And falling rocks  are common too. Why on earth this scenario appealed to me is, up to date, a complete mystery.

Today, they built a newer and safer road. The Death Road is mostly used for touristic purposes and therefore essentially transited by crazy Aussies, North Americans… or Belgians. And the minivans accompanying the groups. There are still some occasional cars too. The hard core drivers amongst the Bolivians I guess.

So there I stood, on November 21st, fully geared up and prepared to break my neck at 4650 meters high, together with some Kiwis & Frenchies… And Irish I think. But I can’t remember too well because, for some reason, I never managed to get hold of the pictures the agency took of us that day. Which is quite a frustration but I guess I will overcome this. Some day. In any case, they make you sign a convention in which you state that you discharge the agency of any kind of responsibility in case of injury. Or death. So there. Experience and thrills at your own risks and perils.

We were given some basic instructions but the first part of the road was a new, large and properly paved one. And it was downhill all the time. Easy-peasy. And, yes, breathtaking views.

Our view while we were gearing up.
Our view while we were gearing up.

But then the real stuff began. With some unwelcome companions: fog & drizzle. But it wasn’t too bad. And, luckily, it didn’t get worse.

The driving rules specify that the vehicle going downhill must give way to the one going up and  stop on the left side of the road. There are some places at regular intervals that are foreseen for that and, luckily, you can see the vehicles in the opposite direction arrive from a distance. Also, the bicycles going in front were asked to warn the ones coming behind.

I was all set to start the adventure. And it started well. Though I still was only at about 70% of my capacity. Thoughts not completely focused on what I was doing when, in such conditions, you need to be 120% at it. The first fall came after about 45 minutes I think. Unable to avoid the 3542th fairly big stone on the road. But I got back on the saddle, determined to continue. And then came the second fall, with which I literally went over my handlebars and heavily hit the ground with my left thigh. I landed back on the road but I could as well have been flying off the cliff. I decided that was enough emotions for the day and accepted the offer of getting back in the minivan. As my mom always says in perfect West-Flemish: comfort comes before pride. It was a big frustration but, sometimes, you have to recognize that you are not fit to do one or the other activity.

My one and only picture of the Death Road.
My one and only picture of the Death Road.

After a while, however, the road was getting easier. So they took my bike off the roof of the mini-van and there I was again. Only to make a final fall about 5 minutes later. Things got better after insulting my mount. From there on, it stuck to the road until the end. Everybody was waiting for me at a small bar at the end of the road, gear already taken off and everything.
– So how did it go?
One look convinced them they shouldn’t try to investigate any further.

Once back in La Paz, the mini-van dropped me off directly at the bus station. After the initial experience of getting my camera stolen, I didn’t really feel like staying longer in the city. I wasn’t really feeling comfortable. I was better than I had been a few days earlier but longing to have a social life again. So I decided that I would go to Sucre, Potosí, the salt flats of Uyuni I had been longing for so much, and then go on my way back to Montevideo and Buenos Aires, where I knew I would be able to meet friends, before going back to Belgium. The end of my South American trip was getting near. And although I was in need of a break, of getting back to some roots, I can’t really say I was looking forward to it.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. oosorio456 says:

    Interesting post today

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