El Camino de la Muerte, The World's Most Dangerous Road, The World's Deadliest Road, The Death Road. Whatever name you prefer they all conjure the same thoughts and suggest the same conclusion. Namely, plunging to your death from a narrow, rocky, bumpy dirt road down a sheer vertical cliff to the valley a few hundred metres below (Wikipedia says 600 metres!).
The Death Road was once a main road between La Paz and the town of Coroico. It featured on a few TV shows including the Top Gear Bolivia Special. A new road has since been built so the old road is now used predominantly by a hundred, or maybe a few hundred tourists on bikes plus the support vehicles each day.
This downhill descent was something we had been pretty excited about. We had heard people had died but as far as we knew the last death was in 2011 when a girl decided to take a selfie whilst riding. We felt confident with this knowledge that as long as we did nothing stupid it would be perfectly safe. That was until our hotel owner told us that 3 people have died this year. Fortunately we selected one of the companies with the best safety reputation.
We were collected from the hotel and with our fellow "daredevils" we drove about 45 minutes out of La Paz to our starting point at La Cumbre, 4,700m in altitude and freezing cold at the snow level. On the way we discussed our experience levels, ranging from not riding a bike since 10 to a rather cocky guy from the US who told us "yeah, I'm pretty good". His 63 year old Dad was a little more modest.
While our guides "checked" our bikes and laid out the equipment we had some warm tea and cake before gearing up. We were each given leg and elbow guards, pants and jackets, gloves, full face helmets and dual suspension bikes. Pretty serious protective equipment which should keep us alive after plunging down a 600m cliff, right?
The first part of the ride is about 15km down a tarmac section. This gives everyone an opportunity to get used to the bikes and we assume allows the guides to assess our ability. We were to stay behind the lead guide in single file and it became evident early on that we should have perhaps selected a less safe company. At least the slow pace allowed us to admire the stunning mountainous scenery and stay on the road when we hit cloud and visibility became fairly poor.
At the end of the tarmac downhill there was a rest stop for water, snacks and bathrooms, before the vans generously drove us along the 8km uphill section to the turnoff, the start of El Camino de la Muerte. Lindsay requested a few bike repairs here such as tightening of the rear brake lever that had become loose, raising of her seat which had sunk and for the suspension to be softened from rock hard to moderately hard since hers was the only bike that required an allen key to make such adjustments. Glad we paid extra for the best quality bikes!
A very short Briefing was given here to prepare us for the ride. Apparently all we needed to know was to use both brakes and stick left which we are sure was really helpful for the inexperienced riders in the group. Unlike the rest of Bolivia, vehicles are supposed to stick to the left so the downhill vehicle has visibility of the roads edge theoretically making it safer on the sometimes 3 metre wide road. This includes bikes riding on the outside edge of the road on a cliff edge.
On that note we were off. Very slowly at first, which was ok with us not knowing what was ahead. Our guide increased the pace a little bit by bit, but our confidence increased at a higher rate and 10 minutes into the ride we were right up his tail wishing he would go just a little faster.
The road was narrow, and we were following the cliff side track. We were riding through cloud and it had started to rain so visibility was quite limited. To our left was just white. As we descended we decided we had been worried for nothing, there was nothing scary about this ride and we didn't know where these supposed cliffs were. It turned out the big scary cliffs were hiding behind that endless white to our left. Possibly a good thing, possibly a bad thing.
We stopped at a few places for some photos. One of the guides was the official photographer so we didn't do anything stupid like try and take a selfie while riding. The road was fun, passing waterfalls and viewing points though it was quite rocky and bumpy in parts. But the guide still wasn't going fast enough!
Then something irritating yet fabulous happened. Lindsay's chain dropped and got itself awfully tangled on the crank. The rest of the group continued on while we spent a while fixing it, meaning we then got to play catch-up! Still in the rain, still riding with a white abyss to our side, we finally got the adrenaline running. We started flying past other riders and were really enjoying ourselves for a while, until we heard "oi!". We had passed our lead guide, a big no-no, so unfortunately had to slow back down and maintain formation.
Soon we were now out of the cold and rain and into the humidity of the forest. There was no longer a cliff beside us and the road flattened and widened, which made evident the lack of gears on Lindsay's bike. We regrouped here, had a rest and were given our Red Bull's, one of the primary inclusions advertised on the tour (very important apparently given one of the survey questions at the end was "Did you received your free Red Bull").
The Red Bull however seemed to work wonders for our lead guide. On our last, though significantly less dangerous section of downhill he actually went a pace that we were almost happy with! Being intermediate riders at best we hate to think how an advanced rider would have felt about the pace.
63km later we had made it! Our end point was at a mere 1,100 metres above sea level, making the descent 3.6km! At the side of the road we were congratulated and given our T-shirts proudly proclaiming that we had survived the Death Road! And more easily than we anticipated. When can we go again???
The van then drove us to a hotel which caters for "Death Road Survivors" for a couple of hours offering a buffet lunch, showers, a pool and a place to swap stories with fellow riders. From there the rest of the group would return to La Paz, but we were going to stay on in the nearby town of Coroico so they dropped us off to take the local bus there.
What an epic day! Despite the danger part not really being evident to is, it was still a brilliant ride. Next time we might try it when we can see the drop!