'CAMINO DE LA MUERTE'
Death Road. It is Bolivia's accidental (by definition) claim to fame; a 64km stretch of winding dirt and mud that plunges from a dizzying 4800m elevation at its start, to near sea level at its climax. While there are terrifying drop-offs and cascading waterfalls spilling over the trail, I'm sorry to disappoint any maddened thrill-seekers, but “Death Road” is likely one of the safest routes I've taken since entering Bolivia. You have perhaps seen the Top Gear: Bolivia Special episode, which aired in December 2009, during which Clarkson and the boys spent part of their South American odyssey creeping along Death Road in their 4x4s, passing facetious local drivers that approached them from the other direction, and coming nail-bitingly close to spilling over the edge and toppling down to a messy doom. But the reality is, the BBC2 programme was simply attempting to revive (for the purposes of entertainment) Death Road’s “glory years”, while in reality, it is simply no longer like that anymore.
Nobody seems to know how many lives Death Road has claimed in order to earn its name. Local estimates, perhaps exaggerated, suggest that as many as 200 people a year were plunging into its misty, verdant abyss during the late 90's. Thankfully, those days are now over, and with the completion of the adjacent and paved North-Yungas highway in 2006, Death Road has become a playground almost exclusively for backpackers, adventurers and overlanders, with most local traffic evading it altogether so as to avoid the endless stream of manic, adrenaline-crazed gringos.
On the morning of my ride, I woke early in La Paz to escape the city traffic (arguably far more deadly, and certainly a hell of a lot noisier) and embarked on the 2-hour ride south towards the beginning of “Camino de la Muerte”. Upon arrival, I shrugged off a novel sign reminding me that I “proceeded at my own risk”, and peeled off from the asphalt to begin my descent down the snaking dirt track.
Starting high in the Andean mountains, I followed the route through an ever-changing explosion of dense vegetation, with jagged, snow-capped mountains quickly giving way to thick green foliage, engulfing what was left of the muddy trail as I entered the Bolivian jungle. And whilst this made for some relatively tricky riding, the dangers were far from my mind; instead, all I could do was marvel at the amazing landscapes stretching out before me.
Allow me to provide some context. I am Australian. We have nice beaches, temperate rainforests and tropical reefs. What we don't have are mountains. Our highest peak is just 2,228m, and whilst passionate Aussie adventurers might defend the riding trails of our immense land, the idea of descending almost twice the altitude of our highest mountain in only an hour was an insane thought for me.
Now don't get me wrong, Death Road has its perils. Like any mountainous and unpaved route, grab too much front brake and you are going over. Complicating safety matters further was the steady stream of mountain-biking tourists that I had to overtake throughout the morning. Had I come too close to a nervous backpacker riding a mountain bike for the first time since childhood, one of us was bound to end up having a bad day, and my bike was a hell of a lot bigger than theirs, so it probably wasn’t going to be me. But overall, the route was remarkably safe on two wheels. Indeed, without aiming to sound complacent, there are far more dangerous routes to be found in Latin America.
So, upon reflection, I can happily say that Death Road was an incredible experience, but not necessarily for the reasons I had expected. As a rider anticipating death-defying obstacles at every turn, it was slightly (and somewhat thankfully) underwhelming in that aspect. However, what it lacks in mortal peril, it amply provides in breathtaking scenery, and I was more than happy to drag my attention up from the handle bars to take in the stunning, ethereal landscapes at every possible opportunity.
If you're in the region, you should without doubt make time for the detour to ride, drive or even hike this amazing trail. Please don't be scared off by the name.
I'm George and this is my blog.
I'm currently exploring Latin America on my motorcycle, traveling to some of the world's most remote communities to work with local nonprofits and share their stories through Grassroots Collective.
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