As you may have read in the post before this one, Rae and I are home. Home, away from all of the adventures, the excitement, the drama, the unknown of traveling…ok so maybe some of those things exist at home as well but I think you get the idea.
And since we’ve been home this has to be the most re-told tale of the trip, hands down. I must have shared this story 5 or 6 times before it really hit me what had happened, and that was while we were still traveling. Needless to say, the gravity of the situation took a while to sink in. Oh now I’ve gone and done it, I’ve hyped the crap out of this story before telling it! Say what you will, I thought it was pretty nifty and I wanted to get the facts down before they slowly turned to fiction. And perhaps sharing my stupidity may prevent further stupidity from a future rider.
*Hot Tip – Don’t be stupid
So, riding down the Death Road in Bolivia certainly was on our to-do list. This was our idea, but I think I may have pushed hard to make sure it happened. Either way, we had heard a lot about it, read a lot about it and the time was finally here to tackle the World’s Deadliest Road. A name backed up by this factually accurate listicle on List25.com.
There are a ton of tour companies available to make this run. Some are really expensive and some are really cheap. By no means are the super double-suspension ultra bikes necessary for this ride, but being that it is Death Road we didn’t want super cheap either. We did a bunch of research online and visited a few shops before committing to any company. Eventually we landed on No Fear Adventures. We really liked the lady doing the bookings, they had decent Haro bikes for a good price and the reviews were positive. If you are planning to tackle this tour we definitely recommend the folks at No Fear. They even got some video footage and photos for us. But always be sure to do your research, use your instincts and you will be fine!
*Hot Tip – In our opinion you do not need a full suspension bike for this tour. You literally roll down hill for 3 hours. But in the rough patches the fork suspension will save your hands. We recommend a good mid-level bike with only fork suspension.
We started our day at the crack of dawn. We had to make our way to the meeting spot somewhere North of us in the heart of the city. We arrived in the general vicinity of the meeting area with plenty of time to spare. Which meant plenty of time to question our location. “Is this the right spot?… Should we look over there?…”
Since by general vicinity I mean Isabel la Catolica, a GIANT round-a-bout with a bunch of major roads (including a bridge out of the city) all intersecting together, there was our usual amount of uncertainty.
But this was a typical experience for us in South America:
- Research the “location” the night before
- Prepare the map or GPS to get us in the right direction
- There is very rarely an exact meeting spot
- Lots of extra time which either:
a) gets used up in delays i.e. wrong turns, traffic, missing road…
b) gives us* time to worry about whether or not we were where we were supposed to be. *I say us, but let’s be honest we all know who was actually doing the worrying
- Find our contact eventually
- Head on our way without much hassle
*Hot Tip – download a map of the area you need to your device when you still have wi-fi, Google maps or otherwise or draw out where you’re headed on a paper map
*Hot Tip – Give yourself lots of extra time. Don’t end up using it? Free time for photos and such
After searching the round-a-bout for 30 mins looking for the slightest hint of a clue indicating where we should be, we decided we would stay put and wait for them to find us. We chose a spot on the other side of the circle and headed over. After only maybe 20 steps a little van ripped by us carrying a bunch of mountain bikes strapped to it’s roof. *Ding*Ding*Ding We have a winner! We ran off and joined the other early morning risers already in the van, who are as cheerful as you might expect at 8 in the morning. Finally we were on our way! As we are bobbing and weaving our way through the city it begins to wake up, just in time for us to be leaving. We finally reach the edge of the city and break out into the incredible Bolivian landscape. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Bolivia has the most breathtaking terrains I’ve ever seen.
After a scenic drive further up into the mountains we found ourselves piling out of the van, suiting up in the provided gear and listening to a pretty solid briefing of what’s to come.
Sitting at over 4600m and about to descend 1200m by mountain bike we received the following guidance:
- Go at your own pace
- Stay in control
- Only pass when the path is straight and clear
- Never pass on a turn
- Follow standard rules of the road
- When we arrive at the unpaved section, ride on the opposite side of the road
-the wrong side
-the cliff side
- The right of way is to the driver going up the mountain
-wait on the edge of the cliff until they pass you and the way is clear
- There will be a guide at the front of the pack and a guide and the van at the back of the pack. We are welcome to jump in the van if we need to.
*Hot Tip – Don’t have a huge head, the helmets may not fit! …as you’ll see in photos & the video
This is also the perfect scenario for urban legends and traveler’s myths. But with statistics like 24 dead bikers since the late 90’s, 6 of which died in the last five years and an estimated 2-300 local deaths each year, the stories are more than just believable.
The first story our guide told us is short and simple. A girl who did not really know how to ride a bike thought it would be a good idea to ride one down Death Road. She rolled right off of the edge and died. This was a general story and didn’t really have a timeline or many details. But the point is simple, pay attention and respect the danger.
The second story seems quite possible and in fact we have photo and video evidence to support how possible this story really is. (Video and more photos further down) There is an iconic shot on Death Road that appears frequently (below is my version). To get the shot you have to stand in a particularly narrow portion of the road and it’s pretty dangerous even without traffic. #GTS
As the story goes, only two weeks prior to our trip, a guide was standing at this exact spot taking a photo for his crew and he died when he was hit by a passing truck and bumped off the side of the cliff. If you don’t believe me or the story, look below…it’s not only possible but likely!
The first leg of the journey was the most fun for me. The road had minimal traffic, it was freshly paved and full of twists & turns. It was as though the road was designed for cruising on a bicycle. No brakes, no peddling. Pure, unbridled cruising. I have no idea how fast we were going but it was pretty dang quick and to be honest it simply felt great.
This was one of the handful of times I really wanted to have a GoPro with us. While there is some footy of the ride, to be honest it’s terrible. As well, on the best portions of the ride I put my camera down to just be present and enjoy the ride. Which is great for me, but not great for making good content. So trust me when I say, the video footage we do have does not even begin to do the ride justice!
The second leg of the trip brought us to our first taste of gravel. No more pristine asphalt. No more perfect turns. Not nearly as many guard rails, but just as much fun. This was really the road we saw on Discovery! This was really that road from Facebook walls and travel sites. Aaand, if you stopped paying attention you could totally ride your bike off of the side of a cliff and die.
Hence, Death Road.
We had a short break here to grab a few photos, let everyone catch up to each other and review the next leg of the trek, things change here after all. We reviewed the rules about switching to other side of the road, giving upwards traffic the right of way, waiting on the edge until they go by and no passing in a turn. We also learned that the new highway that re-routes Death Road traffic was closed for maintenance so there would be more vehicle traffic than usual…great. The road ahead was also nice and foggy giving us minimal visibility. It should be an interesting ride to say the least!
This section was awesome! The “Death Road Shot” is on this part of the road. The views were super cool with all the fog. We started to encounter waterfalls and little creaks of water flowing over the road. And this was the real death part of the road which kept us all on our toes.
Now 2 hours into the ride, I can say at this point I was feeling jazzed. Rach was enjoying herself, the view and her snails-pace. I was feeling comfortable with the bike and full of adrenaline.
We had another break to mark the third and final leg of the trek. We took some layers off since we dropped in altitude. The fog was gone and it was quite warm. This by the way, is also where the guide had said something. I’m sure it was important, but I just wanted to get going and rip through the final stage.
All caught up and ready to go, we head down the remainder of the road. I hung back and chatted a little with Rae. When the conversation was finished we said our I love you’s and I went barreling down the road.
Everything was awesome! The road was a little wider, a little smoother, a little less gravel. We had descended below the fog much earlier and the sun was shining. As I mentioned before, by this point I was comfortable & confident with the bike, full of adrenaline and if you don’t already know this, I like to go fast. Really, really fast.
1st leg of the road – Awesome! 2nd leg of the road – Awesome! Feeling? Awesome!
5 maybe 10 minutes into the 3rd leg of the road a group of riders came up behind me and made a pass. 4 or 5 bright green jerseys went riding by me. They weren’t going that much faster than me and I was about to make a pass as well. So I sped up and joined the pack.
This, is were I made my 2nd mistake. (What was the 1st you may ask? Not retaining any of what the guide had said during the last break.)
The group passed me, I tucked in behind and joined them to make the next pass. I was paying attention to the riders in front of me, the rider we were passing and focusing on maintaining control in the gravel.
The road curved to the right.
What did that guide say at the very beginning of the day? NEVER PASS ON A TURN! But I had seen so many others do it successfully. I had even seen both of our guides do it without issue. To be honest it didn’t even cross my mind at the time, that I should maybe NOT follow this pack into a blind curve, on the wrong side, passing some girl while ripping down Death Road on a mountain bike. I was busy having fun man!
So we round this bend and I see the pack veer to the left. Why you may ask? Well it is very likely that they did not want to ride into the taxi van that appeared as if out of nowhere….Oooooh, blind turn. Now I see.
One by one they all zip around the van with yours truly trailing behind. I grabbed my brakes and went into a good 6 meter skid and tried my best to navigate around the van. I was on the right side of the road, which is the wrong side of the road. I pushed the skid to the left, crossed the road and just clipped the far side of the vehicle.
Between bikes, rollerblades, snowboards, skateboards, skis, trampolines, etc. I have eaten shit a lot of times in my life. A lot. For those of you who have not eaten so much shit, there is a strange time warp kinda thing that happens. Time slows, almost stops entirely. You review what went wrong, how best to consume the shit you are about eat and then wait for the boom. This time was the slowest I had ever experienced and I thought for sure I was going to get around this guy. (Which is why I think he was moving even though he claimed he wasn’t. This part is still up for debate.)
Either way, when time started to move again I had smashed right into the front right corner of his van, flipped over my bike and landed on the ground next to the cliff. The danger of this was lost on me at the time as I was likely in shock. I hit the van so hard with my body that I smashed his headlight into the engine space, put two dents in the hood and chipped some paint off the side panel.
Everyone around me stopped to make sure I was OK and a crowd started to grow. Then the driver and his energetic buddy hopped out and started giving me the gears in Spanish. Then the driver’s passengers started yelling at him to hurry up and get going. Rachel and I can get by, but neither of us speak Spanish very well. So negotiations were difficult to say the least. I had a total of 60bob on me, which is equivalent to about $12. That was not going to cover anything let alone body work. This is also the reason why I don’t have any photos of what happened. Aside from being in shock and pain, I kinda freaked out and did not want those guys to know what kind of gear I had with me in case things got weird. Bolivia can be weird. (Damn I wish I snagged a few photos during this part. Lesson learned.)
As members of our group started to come by they would ask what happened and encouraged me to just hop on my bike keep going; screw this guy. But the driver was actually quite calm and only wanted a resolution. His buddy on the other hand just kept going off. Trying to prove it was my fault and saying I would have to pay hundreds of dollars to fix the van and pay for the driver’s lost time and on an on and on. Because of him I almost did say screw this guy. And I had already admitted it was my fault. But…$12.
Eventually Rae caught up and we decided that bad karma on death road was just something we did not need or want on our trip. And since Rae was the slowest rider one of the guides was with her anyways. So the guide and the locals hashed out what to do and exchanged info. He said he would get a quote from a garage and meet us at the tour company’s office in La Paz. Eventually he met us at the office and hosed me for $100 usd. I know I could’ve argued that price, especially since he didn’t have a quote with him. But I was exhausted, battered and bruised (hip & ego) and I just wanted the whole thing to be over. It would easily run $4-500 for the same repairs at home so I forked over the cash and moved on. I was just happy that I didn’t die. I was happy that I didn’t lose my bike over the cliff or much much worse, push someone else off the cliff!
Not one of my best negotiations of the trip, but I learned a lot that day. I share this most embarrassing part of the story in hopes that you, the reader, may take something away from this without having to smash into a van, bust up your hip and shell out funds from your meager travel budget.
So, what you may ask did the guide say merely 10 mins before I almost flung myself or someone else off of a cliff? Well I’ll tell you.
The last section of the ride is where the most accidents happen. Why you may ask? Well I’ll tell you. The roads are smoother and wider so the cars go faster because they can. This is obviously also true for the bike riders. He also reiterated all of the rules I have already mentioned. So you combine all of that with higher volumes of traffic, my complete disregard for safety in the pursuit of fun and there is bound to be a problem. I mean at this point it’s barely my fault, if at all!! 😉
As far as injuries go on my end, I rode away pretty much unscathed. Knowing how to eat shit does have its perks. But there is nothing you can do about straight up impact and my hip took the brunt of it. The next day I was a little slow and my hip is still a little wonky these days. But if a bruised ego, a bruised hip and a bruised bank account is all that happened after getting hit by a car while riding a bike on Death Road I can live with that. Literally.
I definitely earned my “I survived Death Road” t-shirt. Which I think secretly is the main reason why Rae agreed to do it in the first place.
In the end we survived. We had a beer with the gang we rode with at a little shanty bar at the end of the ride. We geared down, wrangled the bikes and met a parrot. He was pretty cool! Then we all jumped in the vans and went to a great little hostel in the small village of Yolosa. We got some pretty good grub, shared some stories and one of our guides even finished a super Rubik’s cube right in front of us! (Rubik’s Guide)
This is one of those stories that will be told & re-told and is likely to evolve over time, as these things do. It will certainly be a lifetime story for me. One of those, here-we-go, Grandpa’s-crazy-talkin’, oh-not-again, old man stories I’ll be yammering on about to the young’ns one day.