On my 26th birthday, the 2nd birthday I’ve celebrated here in South America, I wondered what to do. While I had planned to celebrate in Santiago, where I knew the city and had lots of friends… I found myself in La Paz, Bolivia. When I looked at the options, sure, Teresa and I could go out and have beers, find a place to eat a nice dinner, or all the typical ideas.
Or, I could do something totally thrilling…. like taking a 40 mile bike ride down the worlds most dangerous road. Obviously, that sounded like a much more Bolivian-style idea… I’ll go out for dinner and have birthday drinks for the rest of my life :)
The night before, we signed up for a guided group ride (while I’m open for some excitement, I’m not naive… this is NOT the activity to navigate alone!) and went to bed early. The next morning, we got up early to enjoy breakfast at the cutest and most delicious cafe. We had fresh, crusty bread topped with homemade passion fruit jam, a cup of strawberries and bananas, fresh blended juice (made from pure fruit and purified water), and coca tea.
The cafe was on a quaint a side street and busy cholas (the native women) were hurriedly passing by, carrying their heavy sacks up the steep hill. While we were eating, the same old man passed by 8 times… constantly strapped with a large bundle on his back. Thinking of how hard these people work every day made me very grateful for the comfy desk job at home.
Satisfied and happy, we got picked up by our group. It was about an hour drive to where we’d start our ride, and we got to see quite a few city neighborhoods along the way. Once out of La Paz, the weather was foggier than I’ve ever seen before. We were climbing up, up, and up into the mountains and I could hardly see anything! It’s a shame because waterfalls and deep, luscious valleys were on both sides of us.
Death road, originally built by prisoners in the 1930’s, connects the capital city, La Paz, with the jungle. Therefore, it’s an extremely important roadway. Up until a few years ago (yes, ONLY a few years ago), when the government decided to build a new road, hundreds of lives were claimed each year… at a rate of almost one vehicle falling off every other week. With the new road, the most dangerous section is rerouted. Therefore, this part is now primarily used by bikers. While the road is quite safe for bikes, it is absolutely mind-blowing to think some locals still need to make this terrifying trek. That said, in February 2012 a bus plunged to the bottom… I can only hope that soon there will be no reason for any vehicle to have to take that risk.
Like I said, as long as you’re not pushing the limits, biking is a safe and breathtakingly beautiful experience. When we arrived to our starting point, we still had to bike to the beginning of the road. Up at over 15,400 feet, the air was hair-splittingly cold and the clouds were thick, white blankets. It was difficult to see… so I was glad we weren’t on Death Road yet! However, we were bundled in full helmets, knee/elbow pads, and warm pants/jackets. When we finally got to the starting point of the road itself, I felt a combination of fear and wonderment. Although we did not luck out with the weather, it was still very cold and very foggy, I was excited to see what the day would bring… even through the grayness it was obvious this country side was just drop dead gorgeous.
I chose to go pretty slow on the bike ride. Not necessarily for fear (well, that was maybe 20% of it!), but mostly because I wanted to be able to look around while still keeping my eyes on the road. Throughout the whole ride, we probably passed 40 waterfalls. A couple times we even passed directly under them! Late March is the end of the rainy season so luckily this did not provide a challenge, but, during the heavy summer rains I am sure people need to walk their bikes.
The constantly curved, skinny road unveiled precious scenery and we stopped frequently to take pictures. The lower we dropped in altitude, the warmer it got. Our ending point, at 3,600 feet, was 12,000 feet below where we started and in a green, tropical climate. So, after a couple hours, we stripped the mountaineering jacket and pants. The road wasn’t really that scary and we only saw a couple cars… but I sure can’t imagine it ,back before the new road,when cars, trucks, and buses were constantly winding its cliffs.
At the end, we had beers and lunch with our group, a bunch of Israeli guys, in a cute little restaurant/hostel in one of the small mountain villages. It felt nice to sit in the sun and just take in the day and the surroundings. When everyone else headed back to La Paz, Teresa and I decided to move on to Coroico… a colorful little jungle town at the end of Death Road. We took a taxi, an old mini-van that made daily rounds between all the villages, for about .$75.
We hopped in, Teresa in the back and me in the middle. When the driver started going… Teresa and I soon looked at each other like, “oh, shit.” Without talking, we were both thinking the same thing, “Man, I didn’t die on Death Road. But, man, I think I might end up dying on Death Road!” You see, we had to take the final stretch to get to Coroico. It wasn’t that bad, similar to the thousands of other sharp cornered mountain roads I’ve traveled on down here. The difference was this guy was racing around each curve, skidding along the gravel paths and passing in places you definitely shouldn’t be passing. I just shut my eyes and prayed. Thankfully, that worked :)