´This could be the end,
The could be the end…´, wails Kings Of Leon’s Caleb Followill through the van’s trashy speaker right next to me and I decide that yes, it could indeed be the end.
´Out here all alone,
I’ll forever roam´. Okay! This song better not be an omen.
The driver says he can’t change it because that’s the only English album he has and we are welcome to listen to some Reggaeton instead and we unanimously decide that no, we are happy with this song, as ominous as it may be, and we might as well get used to the idea that this could be our end anyway.
Descending madly from an altitude of 4,650 metres (15,260 ft) to a much more managable 1,200 metres (3,900 ft), La Carretera de los Yungas, or the Death Road runs from La Cumbre Pass, near La Paz, to the town of Coroico, in Bolivia. For obvious reasons, such as having the word death in its title, – I mean how many other roads in the world can kill you? – it is one of Bolivia’s main tourist attractions.
But why such a sinister name? Well, that whole thing started in 1995, when the road was officially named the World’s Most Dangerous Road. At the time, it annually claimed the lives of 200-300 people. Of course that was back when passenger buses and trucks frequented the road, accounting for most of the casualties. In 2006, Bolivian government decided that enough was enough and a new, modern by-pass replaced the Death Road as the major artery between Lima and Coroico. Without the trucks and buses bullying their way around the road’s tight curves, the road became a whole lot safer for bikers. Or so I said to myself that morning, as our van climbed ever higher, out of La Paz’s sprawling shanty towns and up towards the tour’s starting point.
´This could be the end´. Mr Followill reminded me again, for no reason at all.
Insider Tips: There are dozens of operators offering this tour in La Paz. The prices may range from 300 to over 800 Bolivianos (BoB). The more expensive outfitter do not necessarily guarantee better safety. So do what I did; Barro Biking Company, decent bikes and a fair price of 300 or 350 BoB for single or double-suspension bikes respectively.
The cost includes:
Pick-up and drop-off Transportation
Breakfast and lunch
Photos taken by the guide recorded on a DVD.
Bring warm clothing as it can be quite cold at the starting point of the tour.
Pay the extra 50 or so BoBs’ for a double-suspension bike as it provides a far more comfortable ride.
There were 8 of us inside the van. I got talking to a Swiss guy on the way. He sported a peculiar, bleached mohawk and smoked like a trooper. Most of us were holding it together pretty well, but he oozed confidence like a king penguin in a colony of gentoo’s.
´Ja, I gew up riding my bike on ze mountains. Zis cannot be so bad.´ He boasted, his wiry chest literally inflating as he said the words. I nodded and dully considered him a rock solid candidate for adding to the road’s casualty tally.
After an hour, we came to a stop at a dirt clearing near a small lake. The sun shone without much heat in a cloudless sky. The bikes were dismounted off the roof-racks and we were each handed a helmet, gloves, a set of water-proof fleece and trousers and some elbow and knee pads. Our guide introduced himself as Rico and ran us through the safety instructions, which were pretty straight forward; stop when he stopped, no dangerous overtaking manoeuvres, and do not, ever, engage the front brakes on their own. Generally, just don’t be a hero or stupid or both.
´The first part is very easy. Around 45 minutes. is all asphalt´ beamed Rico. ´We stop on the way for breakfast and then Death Road!´
No problemo! We jumped on our bikes and followed him down the wide, paved road. Rico and the Swiss guy were soon flying away. I, however, decided to take it easy for now and instead imagined myself as Ben stiller in The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, in that scene where he skateboards down an empty road through an enchanting land of mountains and ravines.
After an hour of fairly painless riding and a breakfast of sandwiches, bananas and coke, we swerved off the paved road, held a short team meeting and set off on the interesting part of Death Road. The sky was a deep, unshakable blue which made the landscape around us seem that much more spectacular; the yawning gorges clad in dense, dark green vegetation, the distant mountains fading away in various shades of blue-grey.
The track was all dust and stone and quite bump-inducing-looking. But still, it struck me as rather peculiar that my ass had gone numb within half an hour. Soon my hands too were in so much pain from the constant jolting that I began holding only one handle at a time to give the other hand a rest. To add to my discomfort, it became increasingly hotter as we headed down.
Having done this route for the past 3 years, our guide kept a steady pace. He would stop every half an hour or so, allowing the slower riders in the group to catch up. If you have ever been on a tour, you know there is always that one guy in each group and my Swiss friend filled up that role nicely. He kept pulling off stunts, rode hands free and all. But when he started trying to overtake Rico and thus pushed him to go faster as well, I had had enough. My competitiveness kicked in with a rage. Numb ass? Never mind. We soon had a drag race on our hands, and I had stopped worrying about all the cliffs which lay meters from us.
At the next pit stop, I had had enough of my bike. I suspected the front suspension was broken and Rico confirmed my suspicions. He swapped my bike with one of the spares they always carry and to make up for the pain I had solemnly endured, he rewarded me with a double-suspension bike. What happened next, looking back, seems all a little hazy. I was flying on my new bike! We rode through waterfalls, slashed through creeks and although I was never a match for the other two guys, we finished well ahead of the rest of the group.
We celebrated our success with a few beers at a local bar/restaurant joined by dozens of fellow Death Road conquerors. Except that conqueror was not the right word. Interestingly, despite all the hype surrounding this route, during the trip I was never under any illusions that my life was at any serious, palpable risk. Perhaps I had been a decade or so too late. Travelling on this road 20 years ago must have been a truly frightening experience, what with all sort of vehicles fighting for every centimetre of the road. But that era is long over.
If it was up to me, I’d rename it The World’s Most Pleasant, Spectacular Down-hill Ride.
Death Road? Not so much, as long as you can tell your left brake from your right and the mere sight of an admittedly scary cliff doesn’t turn r legs into jellyfish tentacles.
So, if you are in La Paz, stop making excuses and… as Shia Labeouf would say; Just Do It!