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Day 35 – Death Road Was Not Made for Pessimists

November 14, 2010

Location: Camino de la Muerte, Outside La Paz, Bolivia

Date: Sunday, November 14, 2010

Welcome to Bolivia’s El Camino de la Muerte or the famed Death Road. Until 4 years ago it was one of the only ways to get to the north of Bolivia from the south, which meant a lot of traffic on a winding, one lane (3.2 m or 10 feet wide) gravel road with drop-offs of 600 meters (2,000 feet). The road is so narrow that when big trucks made the turns, one wheel was always over the edge. Unlike the rest of Bolivia, cars are required to drive on the left so that the downhill driver can get a better view of the edge so he can properly poop himself.

The “death” nickname isn’t just a cute moniker. Depending on estimates, 200 to 300 people died on the road each year before a new road opened. Our guide tells us that many accidents occurred because bus drivers were tired after driving for 18 hours from the jungle to La Paz. To stay awake, the drivers ingested a combination of coca leaves, alcohol, and cigarettes. These men (is there any doubt they were men?) could have split driving duties, but that would have meant splitting the 1,000 Bolivianos (~$150) they made for each journey.

Since 1997, mountain bikers have used the road as a gravity propelled rollercoaster. According to our guide, in that time, 22 mountain bikers have died on the road, most after encountering an uphill car. He pointed out turns, calling out names in Spanish: “Italian corner”, “Israeli corner,” “French corner.” All nicknames guides have given for where certain tourists have met their demise.

Today, a group of us paid good money to try our hand at the killer road. Now, I don’t want to blow the risks out of proportion. I’m no Evel Knievel, looking to see how many bones I can break before I die. I am a lawyer after all, notoriously one of the most risk-averse professions on the planet—most of my fellow practitioners get lightheaded when you ask them to consider dropping a comma.

Nowadays the road’s not so bad. Up until 2006, mountain bikers had to share the road with a tremendous amount of traffic. Now, there’s little traffic left because of a newly constructed two-lane replacement on the opposite mountain.

That doesn’t mean you can’t die, though. Do something stupid like slam on your brakes in a turn and you’ll hurtle off an edge. Step off a cliff and you’ll enjoy the most exciting (and last) 500 meters of your life. And there is still the occasional car. It’s dangerous, but then again so is scuba diving, free solo, and trying to swallow all of Lima in two days and I’d happily do any of those again.

We started off at 4,700 m (15,500 feet or half the height of Everest) on tarmac. Heads down, we rocketed down the paved road through some of the most gorgeous driving scenery on earth, sometimes topping speeds of 70 km/h (45 mph) without ever needing to pedal.

As we descended, the mountains crawled up to the sky. The valley to our right was an at altitude desert with little to no vegetation. As always, the Bolivian sky was an unreal blue. Starting above the cloud line and descending through the mountain cold, we stopped occasionally to take pictures and discuss the next section of road.

Clearing two checkpoints, we finally made it to the top of the unpaved section of the road. Here is where the real Death Road begins. We pounded down through the fog, slowing at blind corners to make sure we didn’t plow into an uphill car. As we descended thousands of meters to our destination at 1,100 meters (3,700 feet), the temperature turned from mountain frost to jungle heat. We shed layers, dumping them in the chase van. Speeding down the mountain, I’d see out of the corner of my eye the blur of a cross, tombstone, or mound of flowers—reminders of those who hadn’t made it out of here alive.

The road has always had a grisly history. Back in the 1940s after the road was built, the Bolivian government used to make dissidents disappear by throwing them off the sides of the high cliffs.

Now, though, it’s mostly a tourist stop. That is the privilege of progress. We take what was once necessity and turn it into a luxury. Garden snails become escargot. Pigs’ feet become trotters. A frantic sprint to tell of victory becomes a pay to play marathon. And a Death Road becomes a beautiful downhill ride through Bolivia.

People will still have to travel El Camino de la Muerte. People will continue to die; it’s not like it got less dangerous. But with the new road, it’s mostly a thing of the past. Most importantly, no one died today.

After lunch and a short rest we make our way back to La Paz via the new, more civilized two-lane road. In a tunnel, on a blind corner, our driver decides to pass two large trucks. The van’s sound system—to that point having only blasted Spanish language tunes—pumped out a familiar guitar riff.

“No stop signs, speed limit

Nobody’s gonna slow me down

Like a wheel, gonna spin it

Nobody’s gonna mess me round”

We cleared both trucks and came out the tunnel alive. Even with the new two-lane road, our driver reminded us that you don’t have to be on El Camino de la Muerte to be on a Highway to Hell.

Special thanks to Madness tours which provided bikes, guides, a tolerably mad driver, and all of the fisheye pics you see above.

GALLERY: No bonus pics today.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Doug permalink
    November 20, 2010 9:25 pm

    Do you think you can handle riding with me now. I mean, you rode on the camino of death!

  2. Sally permalink
    November 22, 2010 11:07 am

    As someone who cannot go down a busy straight street with a bike lane to the beach, I literally wanted to throw up seeing your pictures.

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