Saturday (Sabado) 12th June, 2010
Day 456

La Paz, Bolivia
La Paz, Bolivia
Miles: 46,116
S 16.56796°
W 68.08921°

We had heard about the Bolivian death road well before we started this journey, and had even seen TV shows about it. But nothing really prepares one for the reality of this road, and the bike ride that is now the primary use of this road.

The death road is a 32 km section of narrow dirt track, that winds down the side of a steep valley. For much of its length it is barely wide enough for one vehicle, but with periodic wider areas for vehicles to pass. In its upper reaches the edge drops 3000 ft to the river below. The amazing thing is that until 4 years ago this 32 km section was part of the highway from La Paz to Coroico in the jungle on the Eastern slopes of the Andes and was subject to heavy traffic of trucks and buses. It is hard to imagine two 18 wheel trucks passing each other on this road - at times we had trouble having two bikes side by side. The road gets its name, obviously, from the fatalities the road claimed. Our guide told us that when open to traffic an average of 150 people died per year. Mostly from going over the edge - oh, by the way - not a single guard rail. Right at the top of this section of road there is a monument in hebrew for a group of Israeli tourists who drove their rental car straight off the edge of the road - it was raining and foggy and they simply could not see the road. It took 4 days to recover their bodies.

Fortunately today this section had been bypassed by a new road.

The bike ride encompasses more than just the old 32 km section. It starts from El Cumbre - the high point of the La Paz - Coroico road at 4700m (15,400') and descends on paved road for about 30 km. Un-fit tourists like us are then bused for 8 kms because of a slight up hill section to the start of the gravel track which completes the descent to 1100m (3600'). All in all the ride is about 60 km and descends almost 12,000'.

It is an exhilarating, but demanding, ride. I would not say it's a good way to see the scenery as there are few moments when one is not concentrating on the road.

I was a little surprised that Nina completed the ride. We had discussed in the days leading up to this excursion that she should not take any risks, and that if things got too scary she should get off the bike and ride in the mini-bus support vehicle. But again I under-estimated her determination. She looked (and was) nervous for the entire ride. On the gravel section she fell off her bike 5 times - though fortunately always into the ditch nearest the mountain side. The head guide, Marcello, was very good with her and spent much of the ride with Nina making sure she had help at hand.

All in all a memorable day, only marred by a tedious drive back to La Paz with a bunch of drunks, fellow tourists and guides - but thankfully not the driver. An interesting cultural sidelight - here one can buy premixed rum and coke at the corner store in 2-liter plastic bottles, just like coke.