Our trip so far has had the odd setback, and generally we’re always able to find positives and come out better the other side. But there are bound to be some days that really put you through the ringer. The day we did the “Death Road” was one of those.
Not, as you might imagine, because of the dodgy conditions of this infamous road, the dramatic cliff edges or hairpin bends. Nope, the Death Road was the easiest and most enjoyable part of our day. Getting to and from it, however, saw several mishaps which, dear reader, I shall recount to you now.
We were more than ready to leave La Paz. We’d had an amazing time in this unique city, but had spent way longer there than planned due to some problems I was having with my heart and the altitude. I got everything checked out though and was absolutely thrilled when the doctor gave me the all clear to keep cycling. Our next step was to get to Cochabamba – a prosperous city in the centre of Bolivia and our first stop on the way to the colonial gems of Sucre and Potosi. We had decided to change the scenery of the altiplano and get there via the Yungas (the tropical region connecting the Bolivian Andes to the Amazon rainforest) for 500km of lower altitude, heat and some challenging but fun cycling.
Our route started with the infamous Death Road, so called because it used to be the main thoroughfare between La Paz and the Bolivian jungle – quite shocking when you see how narrow, steep and rocky it is. Nowadays though a new, tarmac road is available and the Death Road is no longer so deadly, but has held on to it’s grim title; it’s generally only frequented by the odd car and is more popular with tourists looking for a thrilling downhill bike ride. I’d taken on the road as a backpacker ten years ago on a bouncy mountain bike and was keen to come back and trundle down it with our trusty touring bikes.
So, to the day of mishaps. We planned to take a bus to La Cumbre, a mountain pass sitting at 4,650 m.a.s.l, from where we’d start our day of descent to the Yungas. Our aim was to be there by 11.30am latest, to give us plenty of time. Knowing we were getting the bus, however, made us a little cocky on timing, which leads to our first error: sleeping through our 6.30am alarm. It’s become a part of our morning routine to oversleep by at least half an hour, so why break with tradition now? So, at 9.30am, a full hour and a half later than planned, we said our goodbyes in the casa ciclista and set off.
Getting to La Cumbre, supposedly the easiest part of the day, was a total pain. Once we finally got to the bus terminal (via a few misdirections from yours truly), we had to wait over an hour while our bus driver hustled for passengers, refusing to leave until all his seats were filled. It then turned out there had been a big dump of snow up in the mountains and, it being a Sunday, hundreds of paceños had decided this would make La Cumbre the perfect day trip. Our master plan of leaving on a Sunday for quiet roads ended up with us sitting for another hour in bumper-to-bumper traffic. By this point Chillo and I were starting to exchange slightly worried glances, but didn’t say anything for fear of jinxing the day.
We got to La Cumbre, which was packed with people enjoying the scenery, making snowmen AND snow llamas – true artistry. After a quick selfie we were finally off, at 1.30pm, two hours behind schedule. To get to the Death Road, you first follow 20km of the new road that replaced it, and it was absolutely glorious. All our worries blew away in the wind as we careered down the smooth tarmac – we were finally cycling again and it felt incredible.
As we were pelting along, I noticed a tunnel up ahead – our first tunnel of the trip in fact – and I made a mental note to get my lights ready and slow down. But as we got closer I could clearly see the other side. From the angle I was at I reassured myself it was actually positively arch-like. I would clear it in seconds. And herewith the next mistake…
I vaguely remember Chillo shouting after me –
“Yeah it’s awesome, isn’t it!”
“No, Milla, look – “
Seeing me speeding ahead, Chillo was trying to point out the many signs before the tunnel saying “no cyclists” and “alternative route this way”, but somehow I had been completely oblivious to them. No sooner had I entered the tunnel than this horrible darkness closed in on me. Suddenly, so quickly, I couldn’t see a thing. It was terrifying. I knew there was some kind of concrete bumper on the edge of the road, so I stuck my foot out to steady myself, but missed, lost my balance and fell into the gutter, my heavily laden bike on top of me.
I usually pride myself on keeping a pretty cool head in tricky situations, but in this moment I gave in to the grip of a blind panic. Flailing around like an upside down bug, I was aware of the oncoming cars – many of which didn’t even turn on their lights in the tunnel – and I couldn’t get my bike off me. Chillo rushed after me into the tunnel and we were both initially in a panic – he was shouting at me to get up and I was shouting back that I couldn’t. But he thought quickly and grabbed his rear bike lights, switched them on to flash and waved down an enormous oncoming lorry. The driver saw what had happened and stopped, switched his lights on full beam and thankfully held up all the traffic behind him as Chillo got me on my feet. He slowly tailed us out of the tunnel, lighting up our way and seeing us to safety.
Feeling very stupid and a little shaken, I brushed myself down and just wanted to keep moving. The rest of the tarmac stretch of road passed quietly while we just focussed on getting to the start of the Death Road.
Ironically, this was the breeziest part of the day. Starting at 3,000 m.a.s.l, we were surrounded by eerie clouds, hiding the vast mountains behind them and everything felt very quiet, with a light smattering of rain. But as we trundled down, the cloud started to break and the jaw-dropping cliff drops and mind-blowing scenery started to reveal itself. It’s quite terrifying to think that this road was essentially used as a motorway. Lorries would pass each other in both directions, often not able to see the edge of the road. And having got up close and personal with the Bolivian standard of driving, I can’t imagine this was always carefully navigated. By the time we got to the start (read: LATE!) all the mountain bike tours had finished for the day and we had it to ourselves.
I’ll let the pictures do the talking:
By the end of the Death Road, we were starting to get a little tired and, next mishap of the day, Chillo’s brakes had completely worn out for the last 2km – not ideal on a bumpy downhill. He was literally having to use his shoes to slow down and stop – we had checked our brakes before we left La Paz and all seemed fine, but not so. We planned to end the day in the next main town of Coroico, which is where our terrible timing in the morning caught up with us. Coroico was an 8km uphill climb away, along a horrible cobbled road, and it was starting to get dark. As a general rule we don’t cycle at night, but we didn’t have much choice here, so we strapped our headtorches on and headed on up, sweating profusely in the lower altitudes of the Yungas and trying to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes. Pretty miserable.
After covering only 2km in one hour, we came to a junction in the road that offered some smooth, downhill tarmac. Normally this would be a total blessing, but as it was dark and Chillo had no brakes we were forced to push our bikes. Downhill. It was painful, but the lesser of two evils. 5km later, we reached a transport hub with lots of food sellers and buses passing through. With the help of some local policemen we found a ride going up to Coroico. Bikes strapped to the roof again, we got in the minibus and finally were able to relax. We got to Coroico, found ourselves the nearest hotel and collapsed into bed.
So, there you have it – I imagine reading my account is almost as exhausting as the day itself. Apologies for that, but it was a toughie, and we just kept getting frustrated by our (mostly my) mistakes and oversights. Safe to say though, we’ll definitely think twice next time about hitting the snooze button!
Tips for independent cyclists taking on the Death Road
- Leave early.… This might be a downhill day, but it still takes time, no matter how little you like to use your brakes. Whether you choose to cycle out of La Paz to La Cumbre or take a bus there, you need to aim to be there by 10am absolute latest. Official tour companies leave La Paz at 7am, and they don’t need to faff around buying minibus tickets or securing bikes to roof racks, so that gives you an idea of timing.
- …or give it two days. Even better, head up to La Cumbre the day before, camp there and give yourself the whole day to cruise down. It’s high up, but it’s stunning and there is no shortage of places to pitch a tent.
- It’s not all downhill…. The climb up to Coroico is only 8km, but it’s cobbled and quite steep, making it especially tough on a touring bike after a long day. Make sure you stock up on water in the tourist stops at the bottom of the Death Road.
- …but you can still hitch a lift. Alternatively you can turn off before the official end of the road (you’re not missing out on much), head to the transport hub at the junction with the new road and catch a lift to Coroico, or back to La Paz. Coroico’s a nice place to spend a day, especially if you’re sick of the cold and being out of breath!
Started in Coroico now we’re here
And just to finish, a quick catch up and photo dump with what we’ve been up to since our eventful Death Road day…
The challenges of the Yungas didn’t stop here. We were held up two more days in Coroico due to unseasonal storms – it didn’t stop raining for two days! Once we did set out, the muddy roads definitely slowed us down a bit, but Chillo was also having problems with his tyres and my brakes were starting to fail. We’d run out of spare brake pads after replacing Chillo’s, so were a little nervous about the downhills – all 25,000m of them.
All in all, we just realised we were getting further and further behind and not moving as fast as we wanted to. So we hot footed it back to La Paz and jumped on a bus to Cochabamba, then spent five days cycling to the beautiful city of Sucre. One more bus ride later (doctor’s orders – the steep inclines at altitude were a little too risky for me ‘eart) and we’re now in Potosi. It feels oh so good to be on the move again.
We’re really hoping from here on out we’ll be able to cycle the majority of the way down to Ushuaia. But if we’ve learned anything it’s that plans don’t always work out the way you want them to, and sometimes you just have to roll with the punches.