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Death Road in Bolivia

Cycling the most dangerous road in Bolivia, if not the world, you can end up feeling like a bit of a fraud. After all… It’s the poor Bolivians in trucks who plunge to their deaths.

Three more mountain bikes come jolting down the dirt road and skid to a halt beside the eleven other riders who have already stashed their cycles by the roadside. Filthy with sweat, dust and mud, fourteen young tourists grin and exchange handshakes as their Bolivian guides industriously stack the bikes onto two mud-splattered Toyota Landcruisers. It’s the 13th of July, but we’re feeling lucky. We’ve just survived the Death Road.

The world’s most dangerous highway is not just a tourist moniker for the route which drops from La Cumbre, above the Bolivian capital of La Paz at an icy 4900m, to Coroico, in the lush subtropical valley 3000m below. It’s been applied by the Inter American Development Bank in virtue of this road having the highest average casualties per annum in the known world.

Received wisdom is that this is due more to the approach of drunk and/or crazy Bolivian drivers – periodically sending a busload off the precipitous edge – than to the intrinsically terrifying nature of the road. Nevertheless, it has great notoriety, and adventure-minded tourists who make the descent on mountain bikes boast afterwards of their brush with oblivion.

It’s actually relatively safe for cyclists – just six tourists have plunged to their deaths in the last five years. Though the stories, spread by word of mouth among backpackers throughout South America, are still enough to put a shiver down your spine: an Israeli girl who raced ahead from her group; an Italian professional cyclist who went down by himself and pushed things just a little too far.

I’m certainly nervous when I head to the tour operator office in the morning; the curdling in my stomach can’t be entirely blamed on the remnants of my food poisoning case from Lake Titicaca. I don’t actually expect to die, but I do expect some adrenaline – a life-affirming experience, in fact, from a glimpse into the abyss.

In the end it turns out to be more endorphins than adrenaline, more sport than daredevil adventure. We cover the 64 km from La Cumbre to Coroico in about 3 hours, hitting speeds of 60-70 km/h on the first stage from La Cumbre, a new stretch of asphalt edged with fresh snow. The smooth descent lets us appreciate the stunning views of the towering Cordillera Real framed by a brilliant blue sky.

The next two bits along the dirt road to Coroico – a narrow 10km stretch known as the core “Camino de Muerte”, followed by a wider but still precipitous 32 km – involve much jolting, and sore hands from gripping the brakes, but you hardly feel the breath of the grim reaper. The sheer drops are there – keeping your eyes on the road there’s not much chance to examine them – but the road is wide enough for a cyclist to pick their spot. The four guides and two 4WDs are in radio contact, and warn us of any uphill or downhill traffic, so we can easily get out of the way before another ancient lorry chugs round the next blind curve.

The only time I’m truly scared is during the extended safety briefing prior to the start of the 10 km ‘real death road’ stretch. If anything’s going to make me fall off my bike it’s the nerves engendered by the way the guides talk it up.

But as soon as there’s a collective realisation that we’re not actually cycling across a tightrope, it turns into a bit of a race. Three Dutch girls and a Quebecois guy are the first to take off at breakneck speed. I and a Norwegian guy follow, but it takes me a while to get the confidence to lean into the left-hand turns (towards the cliff side). By then I’ve forgotten about the advice to ‘always fall to the right’; I’m more concerned about being beaten to the bottom by a bunch of girls. In the end we all finish together, the slower groups coming in a few minutes later.

As we drop in altitude the vegetation gets lusher, the sun gets stronger, and we begin to feel warm, humid air rushing up from the valley floor. The vistas remain breathtaking – jagged snowy mountaintops still visible, canyon walls plunge into the rich jungly valley. We pass through a couple of waterfalls, ford a couple of streams, and finish up splattered with dust and mud. The jeeps give us a ride up to the pretty town of Coroico for a buffet lunch and hot showers. Tropical flowers frame panoramic views back across the valley and mountains.

Riding back up in the 4WDs with our I survived the Death Road t-shirts, I can’t help feeling we’re frauds. Which is not to say that the road is toothless. In a truck or bus it’s a genuine nightmare. The true heroes of the Death Road are the drivers of the heavy vehicles which frequent the route – and the passengers packed into them.

On the way down we’d stopped for an upcoming truck and seen it confront a minivan that had just passed us. On the Death Road, traffic must keep to the left, meaning that uphill vehicles get to hug the mountainside, while downhill traffic has to flirt with the cliff face. When the two vehicles met, the minivan had to reverse some way to give the truck a chance to inch past. As it did so, we could see the left wheels of the van clinging to the fragile shoulder, grazing the abyss.

There are people who do this every day. You see the mandarins being sold by the old indigenous woman on the street in La Paz at 30c NZ a kilo? Most likely they’ve been brought up from the warm valley by one of the heavily laden lorries that chug up the winding route. Perhaps the woman herself carried them up in one of the jam-packed passenger vehicles making the daily trip.

On the way back up to La Paz we pass a truck stranded by the roadside with the right front wheel dissasembled, the driver peering into the innards of the hub.

“Problems with the brakes,” comments the driver of our jeep. “Sometimes they stay there for two or three days trying to get them fixed.” Well, they are a useful mechanism to have functioning in this part of the world.

Unlike a fighter pilot or someone who taps burning oil wells, though, these drivers don’t receive rewards commensurate with their risks. What does a minivan driver on the Death Road get paid? More or less the same pittance that Bolivian bus drivers get everywhere. The only extra reward for him and his passengers is an existential one, from frequently and calmly facing oblivion. How much that’s worth when they and their children depend on this livelihood, I don’t know. It’s not quite The Wages of Fear.

For a tourist, it’s the perfect product – the glory and thrill of association with danger, without the reality. Given that this is on the backs of the thousands of local people who have tragically plunged to their deaths, it’s perhaps a little ghoulish. But such are the contradictions inherent in an industry that mixes the not-totally compatible concepts of tourism and adventure.

They’re building a new road to Coroico now, down a different route; it will be paved and allow room for two-way traffic. It remains to be seen whether the old route down the Death Road will retain the same popularity without as many regular deaths to add glamour. But for now backpackers from Buenos Aires to Cuzco will continue sitting in small groups swapping modestly-phrased stories, offering tips to impressed newcomers, and comparing their complementary I survived… t-shirts.

Simon Bidwell