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Jan 23 2013

Did Pachamama Save Me On Death Road?

When I finally arrived in La Paz on my journey around Bolivia, I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to mountain bike down the infamous North Yungas Road, better known as ‘Death Road’ or ‘The World’s Most Dangerous Road’.

In the end, my adventurous streak got the better of me and I decided to do it.  Well, I was in La Paz and might never have the chance again.  It seemed like one of those once-in-a-lifetime things.  Once I had made that decision, I had to choose a company.  That wasn’t as easy as it sounds because there were so many companies offering the ‘Death Road’ bike ride.  I narrowed it down to three: one was relatively cheap and the other two were the most expensive.  I ended up choosing one of the most expensive ones for a few reasons: It was listed in my Lonely Planet guide, other travellers had recommended it to me, the bikes were new and the equipment seemed in good condition.  This was one of those times when it wasn’t worth skimping on cost so I put pen to paper to sign the legal waiver and handed over the money.  It was a done deal!

Two days later, I arrived at a cafe as instructed, which was the meeting place for the ride.  I took my backpack with me because I had the option of staying at the animal refuge after the ride rather than returning to La Paz.  Then we went by van to La Cumbre, which is approximately 4700m above sea level, for the safety talk.  This is when reality kicked in, as you can see from my diary entry:

I listened intently because I had never really mountain biked before.  It suddenly occurred to me that this probably wasn’t the right place to start but, then again, I don’t tend to do things by half!  Well, after that chat I was feeling even more nervous.

Before heading off, we were given a small bottle that had 95% alcohol in it.  We followed tradition by pouring it on our bikes and on the ground for Pachamama (Mother Earth), which was for good luck and to keep us safe, before taking a swig of it.  I had only the smallest amount because it really didn’t taste very good but I was willing to do anything at that stage to make sure I survived the journey and made it to the end safely.  With the ritual over, it was time to begin.

death road, world's most dangerous road, bolivia

The first part of the ride was a bit bumpy but not too bad.  We stopped a couple of times along the way to rest and to ensure everyone was okay.  We paid the tourist entrance fee, which is used to maintain the road and improve conditions for those who still use it, and were instructed it get in the van for the next bit.  I was more than happy to do that because it had started raining and the next part was 8km of uphill riding.

The next part of the ride was worse because the road was rocky, dusty and wet.  The scenery was stunning but I was distinctly aware of the sheer drop a few inches to my left.  I was surprised at how narrow the road was at times and the amount of vehicles that passed us.  This is when it all got a bit scarier for me.
death road, world's most dangerous road, bike ride, bolivia

I stayed near the back because I was the least confident cyclist in the group and needed to concentrate and take my time.  I tried not to grip the handle bars too tightly but I couldn’t help it.  I had been having problems with the goggles during the ride.  They kept steaming up so I had to keep stopping to clear them.  I thought about taking them off but I didn’t want to get any mud, dust or stones in my eyes.  Apart from that everything seemed to be going OK.  That was until… my bike slipped and I came crashing to the ground – bike and all!  I was lying on the ground on Death Road wondering what the heck happened.  My left thigh was sore from the fall, my confidence knocked and I was shaken by the whole experience… but I was still alive.  I hadn’t plunged to my death, thankfully.  It’s amazing… of all the places I could have come off my bike, this was one of the safest.  Did Pachamama save me?  Who knows!

A fellow rider, who was following behind, told me that my front wheel had hit a rock, which he pointed to and said I had fallen ‘gracefully’.  His comment was so crazy it brought a much needed smile to my face.  With that, I dusted myself off and got back on the bike to complete the ride without the goggles.  I was so relieved to complete the ride… in one piece!

We ended the ride at the animal refuge centre where we were given a much needed cold beer, lunch, a hot shower to wash away the dust and grime from the downhill journey, and a tee-shirt to prove we had cycled down the ‘World’s Most Dangerous Road’.  I had an extra memory of the ride – a massive bruise on my left thigh.

Since I had my backpack with me, I decided to stay and help out at La Senda Verde Animal Refuge because it was so peaceful and relaxing.  I needed that after the day I had had.

animal sanctuary, bolivia, monkeys

The map shows the route we took…

About the author

Teresa Keane

Teresa has been to almost 60 countries. She started travelling independently at the age of 38 when she gave up her job, rented out her house, put her possessions in storage and spent a year travelling the world. It changed her life. She now creates, publishes, & promotes online travel content and is an experienced freelance trainer & EFL teacher.

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  1. Things To Do In Bolivia - Independent Travel Help

    […] 1. Cycle down ‘Death Road’ […]

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